PTSD: How Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Affects Us—and How to Fight It
After surviving a traumatic event, PTSD often follows. Learn how to battle the symptoms of this frightening mental health condition.
Approximately 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, according to PTSD United, and, as a result, up to 20 percent of those people go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
PTSD is a mental health condition that can cause uncontrollable thoughts that are both negative and frightening, or it may cause a person to emotionally detach from the event. PTSD sufferers also often withdraw from the people and/or places that remind them of the event. Symptoms can last as little as a few weeks to as long as several years.
PTSD is commonly associated with military veterans who experienced combat, but the condition can affect men and women of all ages. In fact, research suggests that about twice as many women as men experience PTSD at some point in their lives.
Causes of PTSD
The traumatic events that can lead to PTSD can be combined into the following four categories:
- Physical violence/abuse, such as childhood abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, and mass violence resulting from war or terrorism. “People who went through assault often report feeling unsafe and on edge, as if they are expecting someone to attack them again,” said Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, teaching faculty member at Columbia University Teacher’s College, and the founder and Clinical Director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C.
There are four common types of assessment used by mental health professionals to diagnose patients with PTSD, according to Dr. Hafeez:
- Primary Care PTSD Screen for DSM-5: This assessment was designed to provide a probable diagnosis, but those who screen positive require further testing before an official diagnosis can be made.
- SPAN: In this assessment, respondents are asked to rate items on a five-point scale to indicate how distressing each of the four symptoms—startle, physically upset by reminders, anger, and numbness—has been during the past week.
- SPRINT: The Short Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Rating Interview assesses the core symptoms of PTSD: intrusion, avoidance, numbing and arousal.
- TSQ: The Trauma Screening Questionnaire is a 10-item assessment that asks respondents to endorse items, such as upsetting thoughts or memories, that they’ve experienced at least twice in the past week. The authors of the TSQ recommend that screening be conducted three to four weeks after a trauma has occurred.
- Emotional abuse. “Usually, the PTSD begins after the relationship has ended or, in the case of emotionally abusive parents, when the child leaves the home. [He or she] may feel depressed and fearful of being manipulated without knowing it,” Dr. Hafeez said. “Emotional abuse is particularly insidious in that it feeds off the vulnerabilities and insecurities of its victims.”
- Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. “When we look at natural disasters that result in loss of lives, assets, and personal property, there’s a sense of hopelessness that can be incredibly overwhelming,” Dr. Hafeez said.
- Major injury/surgery. A serious illness, injury, or car accident can all trigger PTSD. Some people who undergo major surgery on their heart, lungs, brain, or spine can experience PTSD during or after their hospital stay. According to a study published in Psychological Medicine, patients with a history of depression were more likely to suffer from PTSD after a hospital stay due to reasons such as fear of death, surgical error, or distorted memories as a result of sedation.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD can affect a person’s life mentally, emotionally, and physically. It can prevent you from living a normal life and keep you isolated from your loved ones. The condition also has the power to affect the future of your health.
The following are common symptoms of PTSD:
- Nightmares/flashbacks. PSTD sufferers often replay events that traumatized them repeatedly in their minds, which can disturb their sleep or cause anxiety while they’re awake. The nightmare often prevents sufferers from sleeping well at night.
- Depression, anger, and anxiety. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, and stress, as well as trouble concentrating and relating to others emotionally, are common symptoms of PTSD.
- Substance abuse. PTSD sufferers often turn to drugs and alcohol to mask the depression and anxiety they’re experiencing.
- Sedentary lifestyle. Because they often feel anxious and unsafe, PTSD sufferers typically prefer to stay indoors and away from other people.
People with PTSD also have a higher risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health problems.
Once a PTSD diagnosis has been made, treatment can begin. Your doctor will most likely recommend a combination of the following treatments to alleviate as many symptoms as possible and develop coping strategies for when symptoms do appear:
- Psychotherapy. Trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most highly recommended type of treatment for PTSD and are designed to help the patient process the traumatic memory and focus on the changing unhelpful beliefs about it. Trauma-focused psychotherapies include prolonged exposure, cognitive processing therapy, and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing.
- Medication. People with PTSD are often treated with antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors. (SNRIs), and sometimes with additional medications that address associated problems, like sleeplessness. For more information, check out Do Antidepressants Really Work?
- Exercise. Research shows that sports and physical activities can help people with PTSD gain (or regain) a sense of achievement, enhance their well-being, reduce symptoms, and improve coping strategies.
- Acupuncture. A recent 12-month study conducted by Healthwatch Norfolk found a significant reduction in both symptoms of PTSD and symptoms of anxiety and depression in the 21 military veterans who received acupuncture treatment. For more information about acupuncture, check out What is Acupuncture?
- Meditation. According to a study published in Military Medicine, regular practice of Transcendental Meditation enables some active duty serve members with PTSD to reduce or eliminate their use of psychotropic medications to control their symptoms. For more information on mediation, check out Meditation—Your Best Defense Against “Monkey Mind”
- Emotional Support. People with PTSD are encouraged to get emotional support from family, friends, and support groups where they can discuss their experience with others. Some people also receive extra comfort and support from owning and caring for pets.
GABA Deficiency’s Link to PTSD
A number of studies have linked gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) deficiency with PTSD. GABA’s primary function as the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter is to prevent overstimulation by counteracting glutamate, the brain’s major excitatory neurotransmitter.
People who suffer from PTSD after going through a severe trauma have significantly lower brain GABA levels than those who don’t develop PTSD after traumatic experiences. A number of studies have documented decreased brain GABA levels in people with panic disorder compared to individuals without panic tendencies. For more information about GABA deficiency symptoms, check out 4 GABA Deficiency Symptoms You Can Identify Yourself.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ON YOUR OWN TO FIGHT PTSD
Serious and/or long-lasting symptoms of PTSD call for professional assessment, according to Roger K. Pitman, MD, an MGH psychiatrist who heads PTSD research efforts at Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition, you can try these strategies on your own to help ease mental distress and harm to your health:
- Push yourself to stay involved in the present. Instead of dwelling on past events, try to immerse yourself in activities—hobbies, an exercise regimen, or social relationships, for example—that absorb your attention.
- Take care of your health. Follow the advice of your doctor to manage health conditions. Adopt a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet, try to get at least seven hours of sleep at night, and engage in regular physical activity.
- Learn stress-reduction techniques. Meditation, yoga, visualization, progressive relaxation, and similar relaxation methods may help relieve PTSD-related distress.
- Consider joining a support group. Discussing your experience with others can help you put your anxieties in perspective.
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Almost 50% of all outpatient mental health patients have PTSD, according to PTSD United.
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