What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Frightening, overwhelming or traumatic experiences can have a strong impact on your mind and emotions, especially if these experiences are life-threatening.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is classified as a trauma- and stressor-related disorder and is one of many psychological reactions you can have to a traumatic event. These traumatic events might include:
- An accident;
- Sexual assault;
- A natural disaster, like a flood, fire or tornado;
Experiencing a stressful or upsetting event—like a break up, for example—is not the same as a traumatic event like those listed above.
How a traumatic experience might affect you
It’s not uncommon to experience strong emotional reactions like fear, horror and helplessness during a traumatic experience. Other emotions like sadness, guilt and anger are often felt in the days that follow. Many people will recover after a few weeks following a traumatic experience with the help of family and friends.
These sort of reactions are normal and don’t necessarily mean that you have PTSD. But if you are experiencing any of these feelings, it’s important that you look after yourself. Check out the fact sheet on Coping with a stressful event for some ideas about how to take care of yourself.
For a small group of people, the distress following a traumatic event doesn’t go away and interferes with important areas of their normal everyday functioning. In these cases, it’s no longer considered a normal response to trauma, and a mental health professional should evaluate for a possible diagnosis of PTSD.
What are the effects of PTSD?
PTSD can be distressing and have negative consequences for your health and wellbeing. It can affect anybody from any culture—men and women, young people, and children. People with PTSD might:
- Not be able to get the incident out of their minds;
- Have trouble sleeping;
- Feel irritable with themselves and the world in general;
- Have trouble concentrating;
- Abuse alcohol or drugs to block out memories;
- Become unusually busy to avoid dealing with emotions;
- Struggle with school or work;
- Have trouble connecting with others;
- Feel depressed, panicky or anxious.
PTSD symptoms cover four main areas:
Intrusive memories,flashbacks, nightmares or daydreams ”intrude” into the life of someone with PTSD. These memories can be extremely vivid and sometimes make people feel as if the traumatic event is happening all over again.
A natural response for people with PTSD is to avoid people or situations that remind them of the traumatic event. For instance, if the event was a car accident, a person might not be able to drive or be a passenger in a car. People with PTSD can become so numb that they “shut down” in these situations, withdraw from life and have trouble connecting with others.
3. Negative alterations in thoughts and feelings
This can include things like being unable to recall important aspects of the traumatic event; frequently feeling negative about oneself or others, or the world; an inability to experience positive emotions; diminished interest or participation in significant life activities, etc.
4. Heightened arousal
People who experience “heightened arousal” feel jumpy and on edge. Some are constantly on the lookout for signs of danger, as if another traumatic experience could happen.
Getting help for PTSD
Nobody can snap out of PTSD. Getting better takes professional help, time and effort. PTSD is treatable and usually requires treatment from a mental health professional.
The sooner a person is treated for PTSD, the better. Early treatment will help the PTSD from becoming ingrained and persistent for a long time. If left untreated, PTSD can become a chronic disabling mental health disorder.
It is very common to have PTSD at the same time as another mental health problem. Depression, alcohol or substance abuse problems, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders often occur along with PTSD. The best treatment results occur when both PTSD and the other problems are treated together rather than one after the other.
Where to get help
Your local medical doctor can be a good place to start if you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms. A doctor can also help manage some of these symptoms.
If you experience PTSD, it’s likely that a doctor will recommend you see a mental health professional. These include psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors. For more information on who can help, check out the fact sheets on these providers, or the Get Help section on ReachOut.
Types of treatment
Dealing with memories
Talking about the traumatic event helps people confront what has happened to them. You can talk to your doctor, but a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor will be able to help more specifically with PTSD. These providers use a variety of techniques to help you deal with the incident at your own pace.
Your doctor or mental health professional can help you ease the distress that comes with troublesome memories. Relaxation techniques, controlled breathing and other methods are an important part of managing PTSD symptoms.
Even though you might not feel like it, taking care of yourself physically can help you deal with the emotional aspects of PTSD. Remember to exercise, eat well and go easy on drugs and alcohol. You might also want to try and get your body into a routine— like eating and sleeping on a regular schedule—to help you get some structure and security back into your life.
Medication can be a useful part of PTSD treatment. Your medical doctor or mental health professional should be able to tell you about what’s available. Currently, the most common drugs used are antidepressants. Some people might need to continue using medication to control their symptoms for a few years.
For more information on the treatment of PTSD, check out the website for the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Helping someone with PTSD
If you have a friend or a family member who has PTSD, you might want to check out the Supporting someone with a mental illness fact sheet.
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