Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health disorder that people may develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Most often associated with soldiers and war experiences, PTSD may also be the result of being involved a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster, car accident, or sexual or physical assault.
It’s normal to experience upsetting memories, anxiety, sadness, depression or fear after going through a traumatic incident. You may have trouble sleeping, and find it hard to process the memories and manage the strong emotions associated with it. Usually, these feelings lessen over time and people start to feel better within a few weeks or months.
When these feelings are intense and persist for more than a few months, and are not improving you may be diagnosed with PTSD.
What are the risk factors for PTSD
PTSD can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness, and it is not a mental illness. It is a mental injury, that takes time to heal. Several factors make developing PTSD more likely, including the intensity of the traumatic event, and the type of event. Combat situations and sexual assault are very commonly associated with PTSD.
Possibly the most important factor influencing whether a person goes on to develop PTSD is the support that is received after the event. Seeking and receiving strong social and psychological support after the incident decreases the chances of developing PTSD, whereas isolation and not having emotional support vastly increases the likelihood.
What are the symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD may start immediately after the traumatic event, or they may appear weeks or months later. They may be regular or constant (for example having nightmares every night) or they may be more sporadic attacks that come and go over many months or years. Often a person experiences ‘triggers’ which bring back memories of the traumatic event and cause intense symptoms to appear, as if they were experiencing the traumatic event all over again.
Symptoms vary, but a common experience is to feel intense fear or panic, similar to the fear they felt during the traumatic event. There are four main symptoms of PTSD:
- Reliving the trauma. Being unable to stop memories or flashbacks of the event, and suffering vivid nightmares. The memories are so intense as to cause physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations and feelings of panic.
- Being hyper alert, or overly wound up. Always feeling jittery or on alert, or on the lookout for danger, when there is no real threat. You may have trouble concentrating, get irritable or angry easily, or get startled and overly emotional. Some people use alcohol or other drugs to try and cope with these unpleasant emotions and calm down.
- Feeling negative emotions, or being emotionally numb and feeling nothing at all. You may feel detached from people, and isolated from friends and family. You may feel unable to trust or confide in anyone and lose interest in things you used to enjoy doing. Or you may feel guilt or shame about the event, or feel that everything is dangerous and no one can be trusted. You may be emotionally fragile and have frequent crying jags, and feel life will never get better, or that people are out to get you.
- Avoiding situations, people or places that remind you of the event. You may avoid anything and anyone that brings back painful memories of the event, or cause you to relive the traumatic event. You may isolate yourself completely, stop going places you used to go and avoid people who remind you of the event, and feel intensely fearful whenever you leave home.
People with PTSD also often experience other problems including:
Substance abuse. It’s very common for suffers to abuse alcohol and/or other drugs to block out the memories, to relieve the intense emotions (fear, hurt, abandonment, hopelessness, despair) or to try and help them sleep. Obviously the substance abuse can lead to addiction and further isolation and despair.
Relationship breakdowns. Sometimes loved ones (if the sufferer is lucky enough to have people who love them) do not understand what the sufferer is going through, and feel that they are being pushed away. Sometimes the loved ones pull away because the sufferer has ‘changed’ and they don’t know how or don’t want to help.
Depression or anxiety. Over time, untreated, PTSD can develop in to severe depression and/or anxiety.
Employment problems. Sometimes the symptoms are so severe, or the sufferer is triggered so regularly they cannot hold down a job successfully.
Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, shame or despair. Sometimes ‘survivor’s guilt’ is part of the complex range of emotions experienced by sufferers of PTSD.