Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Traumatic events can stick with people well after they end. In some cases, the memory of a life-threatening or emotionally painful incident can remain with a person for the rest of their life. The imprint on a person’s memory can cause recollections of physical and emotional reactions that the person had during the event. Certain sights, sounds or other characteristics that are similar to the major traumatic event can bring these painful memories to the forefront of a person’s mind and ignite those internal and external responses. Experiencing reactions to past traumatic events is a mental health disorder commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While commonly associated to military personnel or first responders such as firefighters, police officers or emergency medical technicians, this type of mental illness can affect anyone who has undergone a major negative event in their life and knowing the causes, types and treatment options can help improve one’s mental wellness.
Knowing how PTSD forms usually answers the question, “What is PTSD?” When an individual experiences a moment when their life was in danger, or when they witnessed someone else’s life in danger, they might later experience occurrences of flashbacks or psychological disturbance as they recall the event. When these recollections and responses happen, it’s often a sign that someone has developed PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a disorder that can develop after people experience “a shocking, scary or dangerous event.” When people feel fear, they will often channel a “fight or flight mode.” As most people naturally heal from a traumatic event, they will recall the experience fewer times as it becomes more into the past. However, for some people, the incident can stick with them in a more permanent state and the physical and emotional reactions experienced during the fight-or-flight response can surface once again, even during times when no danger is present.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Not every case of PTSD is the same. Some people might experience severe effects from the disorder and show significant reactions when the memory is revisited. Others might only show slight responses but otherwise remain calm. Additionally, there are specific causes for PTSD, and those can also lead to different effects stemming from the mental illness.   To help people better understand how the disorder can vary for each person, medical experts have defined five distinct types of PTSD. These include:
  • Normal Stress Response
  • Acute Stress Disorder
  • Uncomplicated PTSD
  • Comorbid PTSD
  • Complex PTSD
Normal stress response is the type of PTSD that occurs in otherwise-healthy adults who are exposed to a single traumatic event. When this experience occurs, individuals might suffer from a number of effects, including:
  • Bad memories
  • Emotional numbing
  • Becoming detached from reality
  • Removing oneself from relationships
  • Inability to concentrate on routine daily activities
  • Bodily tension
While these experiences are often negative and can result in feelings of anxiety or depression, people who have the normal stress response type of PTSD often recover fully within a few weeks. As people go through the post-trauma process, it’s best to seek emotional support from peers or medical experts. These might include group settings where people can describe their emotional responses to the event and the symptoms of PTSD they’re experiencing. In a clinical setting, they can be taught coping strategies to help curb their negative responses when the memory of the trauma surfaces.
Acute stress disorder is a more severe type of PTSD compared to normal stress response. People who experience a single traumatic event do not commonly develop this version of PTSD unless there is a lasting negative effect, such as the death of a family member or friend, or a loss of home, employment or community. Signs of acute stress disorder include:
  • Panic attacks
  • Mental confusion
  • Altered sleeping habits, including insomnia
  • Unreasonable suspiciousness
  • Inability to maintain health, appearance or responsibilities at home or work
People who suffer from acute stress disorder often require immediate support following the traumatic event. Ways to help include:
  • Removing the person from the setting
  • Medication to relieve grief or anxiety
  • Sleep medicine to prevent insomnia
  • Psychotherapy sessions
The symptoms of uncomplicated PTSD are the more well-known effects that people associate to the disorder. People who suffer from this type of PTSD may consistently go through the traumatic event even weeks after the incident. In some cases, people with uncomplicated PTSD will actively avoid being present in settings and situations that might remind them of the event. The most common treatment options include psychotherapy, medications, group discussions or a combination of many strategies.
Comorbid PTSD occurs when someone who already has a co-occurring disorder experiences a traumatic event. The most common psychiatric disorders that could combine with PTSD include depression, anxiety or substance use. Alcohol and drug misuse are often linked to PTSD, either as a cause or an effect of the disorder, and experts suggest treating the two disorders together.
Complex PTSD occurs when people undergo a prolonged traumatic event or series of incidents, often connected to one another. This type of PTSD can be traced back to childhood, and examples include sexual or physical abuse. Individuals who suffer from complex PTSD also are likely to have an antisocial or borderline personality disorder. Some of the side effects of this illness include:
  • Impulsiveness
  • Aggression
  • A desire for dangerous or unhealthy sexual activities
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep irregularities
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Gambling addiction
  • Self-harm or other destructive tendencies
  • Extreme anger, depression or panic
Not every traumatic experience develops into PTSD. Some people endure a negative incident and recover within a few hours. Likewise, not everyone who has PTSD has experienced a dangerous or life-threatening event. Some experiences, such as an unexpected death of a loved one or even a job loss, can cause PTSD to develop.   The most important identifier when determining if someone has PTSD is how long after the traumatic incident happened that symptoms appear. The National Institute of Mental Health states that effects from the incident must last at least one month to be considered PTSD. Signs are usually recognizable within three months, but they have been known to take longer before the first symptom occurs. Some of the most common PTSD symptoms include:
  • A re-experiencing episode such as a flashback, bad dream, or frightening and sudden thought
  • An incident of avoiding a situation or place, or actively trying to not talk about thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
  • An sign of arousal, such as being easily startled or having intense outbursts
  • Cognition and mood alterations, which include negative views of oneself or the world, guilt or blame for the event, a lack of interest in once-enjoyed activities, or trouble remembering details about the incident
The first step to diagnosing PTSD in an individual is knowing if they recently experienced a traumatic event. If one occurred, even something like the loss of a pet, the person might show signs of the disorder. Symptoms to look for include significant changes in mood, an inability to maintain conversations, dissociation, becoming easily aroused or reactivated by everyday sounds or sights, feeling guilt or blame, or exhibiting signs of depression.   If any of these symptoms are noticeable, diagnosing PTSD is much easier. Once diagnosed, knowing how the disorder formed can help determine the best treatment plan.
Since anyone can develop PTSD, the risk is the same for every individual. Genetics do not play a factor in who has PTSD because it’s often centered around a significant event in someone’s life. Possessing an anxiety, substance use or borderline personality disorder — each of which can involve genetic factors — can play a role in whether someone develops PTSD, but it must combine with experiencing a traumatic incident. Understanding that anyone can develop PTSD, from even something like a car accident or a job loss, can urge people to look for symptoms in their family members or friends following one such negative incidents.
PTSD is often linked to drug and alcohol addiction as a way to ease some of the pain inflicted when memories of the traumatic experience surface. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 46 percent of people who had a long-term PTSD also suffered from a substance use disorder. Aside from their co-occurring connection, PTSD and substance use disorders can also involve similar symptoms. PTSD can result in isolation, aggressiveness, anger or irritability, difficulty sleeping or eating, and relationship issues. Many of those effects can also be caused by misusing drugs or alcohol. PTSD is most commonly caused by an incident, so drug or alcohol misuse cannot directly lead to the disorder. However, if a major negative incident occurs due to a substance use disorder, then the PTSD from that incident can be traced back to substance misuse. By comparison, many people develop an addiction due to the difficulties from their PTSD. The disorder can lead to depression, anxiety, social or relationship troubles, financial strain, job loss due to inability to focus on work or other routine activities, and many other trials through the rest of a person’s life. Struggling to handle these burdens can lead to substance misuse as a way to self-medicate and temporarily improve a person’s feelings.
Researchers estimate than nearly 8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point during their lives, while 10.4 percent of women will develop the mental illness compared to just 5 percent of men. While these numbers are low compared to how many Americans report experiencing a traumatic event — 60 percent of men and 51 percent of females — in many cases the illness is left untreated. Many people have PTSD but either do not recognize the symptoms or refuse to seek help for a number of reasons. The website HealMyPTSD.com states that around 20 percent of adults who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD during their life. However, the percentages increase significantly for people who are the victim of an incident, such as a survivor of sexual or physical abuse. Between 60 and 80 percent of victims of a traumatic event will suffer from the disorder at some point during their lives. For military personnel, the disorder is much more prevalent. Between 10 and 30 percent of combat veterans suffer from PTSD at some point during their lives, and 1 in every 5 who returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan had, or still have, the disorder. That equates to around 20 percent of the soldiers deployed in the last six years. For children from poor upbringings or who live in at-risk settings, developing PTSD is much higher than in children who are not in similar scenarios. More than 33 percent of adolescents who were exposed to community violence suffer from PTSD, and the National Center for PTSD states that nearly all children who witnessed homicide or sexual assault in their homes would eventually suffer from PTSD. Additionally, around 90 percent of sexually abused children and more than 75 percent of kids who survived a school shooting developed the disorder, due to those incidents.
When an incident causes someone to develop PTSD, their life can change forever. They can be haunted by the memories of the traumatic event, no matter the severity of it, in a permanent manner. However, treatment is available to help people suffering from this disorder find peace and happiness. The most popular treatment options for PTSD are psychotherapy and medications, which are often done in combination to curb some of the effects of the disorder. However, since each person is different, no two versions of PTSD are exactly the same. The five types of PTSD are a way for medical experts to properly identify the severity of a disorder and gain an idea of how much a person is suffering due to the illness. While many people might benefit from both psychotherapy and medications, some only need to discuss the traumatic event and the effects and do not need prescriptions. Psychotherapy, also called “talk therapy,” is done in a clinical setting either as a group or in a one-on-one session with a counselor or therapist. Psychotherapy usually lasts at least six weeks and no more than three months, but sessions can continue beyond if the disorder is severe enough and the person has not fully recovered. Psychotherapy treatment can be used in many different ways. Most experts focus on the symptoms of PTSD, but problems in one’s family or social life can also be discussed as a way to cope with the effects of the disorder. One of the most popular forms of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of PTSD treatment involves two main facets: exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring. The former is the process of exposing the affected person to the incident and the trauma surrounding it in a safe manner. The latter is the process of helping people view a traumatic event in a realistic manner and shedding any blame or guilt they might feel from their association to the incident. Sometimes discussing the traumatic event is not enough to fully heal from the memories of the incident. Medications can help relieve people of the painful internal effects of PTSD. Since this disorder often results in depressive states, antidepressants are the most common medications prescribed to people suffering from PTSD. Antidepressants can help prevent feelings of sadness, anger or numbness. Experts continue to research additional PTSD medications to help improve the quality of life for those who suffer from the disorder. The Recovery Village, a network of rehabilitation facilities for people suffering from substance use disorders, also provides treatment for co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety. PTSD is included in the list of mental health disorders treated at The Recovery Village. While the IAFF Center of Excellence is specifically for firefighters and other emergency responders, all of the facilities within The Recovery Village’s network have a team of experts with the knowledge and resources to properly identify and treat PTSD as a co-occurring disorder along with substance misuse. If you or a loved one have experienced a significant negative event — a loss of life, home or community, among other incidents — and has resorted to substance misuse as a way of easing the pain, help is available. Call The Recovery Village to learn more about treatment options, the length of the programs and more about why PTSD can be so harmful if left untreated.
PTSD Treatment
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PTSD Treatment was last modified: July 9th, 2018 by The Recovery Village