Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that some people develop after a particularly stressful or terrifying experience. The more science examines it, the more it becomes clear that this serious mental illness results from any extreme or dangerous event in a person’s life.
Healthcare experts and physicians are not entirely sure why one person suffers from it while another person, who lived through the same harrowing event, does not.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 5.2 million adults cope with it each year.
It did not receive an official diagnosis until the American Psychiatric Association (APA) included it in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), “the bible of psychiatry,” in 1980. Though it wasn’t in the DSM, psychiatrists had noticed for years that some soldiers who had survived combat exhibited similar symptoms.
- Early on, the condition was “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms are painful and often lead to other mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. Some of the symptoms include the following:
- Flashbacks – reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again
- Distressing and recurrent memories of the trauma
- Severe emotional and physical distress in a reaction that triggers negative memories
- Overwhelms with guilt and shame
- Difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking to excess or driving dangerously
- Difficulty maintaining once close relationships
- Hopelessness about the future
Diagnosis and treatment
For anyone suffering from this disorder, proper diagnosis and treatment can help ease symptoms and allow individuals to begin working through the trauma. Physicians can prescribe certain medications to reduce anxiety symptoms, and therapy in counseling and support groups is also effective.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological approach that helps change the way victims act and feel by altering their patterns of thinking and behavior. For example, individuals learn to identify memories that make them feel anxious or afraid and replace them with less distressing images and thoughts.
- CBT is an effective therapy. It is the standard of care of the U.S. Department of Defense-related to mentally traumatic injuries.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has also proven very effective therapy.
Though it’s been combat veterans who have received much of the public’s attention, there are other possible causes. These can include circumstances such as:
- Childhood neglect and physical abuse
- Sexual assault and molestation
- Car accidents
- Terrorist attack
- Natural disasters
- Life-threatening medical diagnosis
- Getting mugged, robbed, or held at gunpoint
For some, long-term trauma that’s lasted over some time creates an even more painful and challenging condition.
Complex PTSD is when a victim experiences chronic trauma that continues to repeat over months or years. Psychiatry has acknowledged that the current guidelines regarding it do not entirely capture the harm that recurrent and sustained trauma creates. These types of prolonged circumstances can include the following:
- Long-term domestic violence
- Long-term prostitution
- Repeated child sexual abuse
- Prisoners of war and concentration camps
- Organized human slavery rings
These types of traumatic events can virtually rewire a person’s brain, changing everything from their self-perception to their ability to regulate emotions. Treatment for it is similar, emphasizing interpersonal difficulties and becoming empowered to experience feelings of safety once again.