About 20 percent of people exposed to a threatening experience such as automobile accident, a violent crime, or physical or sexual abuse, develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mental health condition, which is characterized by high levels of anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts about the event, and emotional numbing, can also affect people who have experienced a serious illness or medical emergency. For example, a study published in the June 29, 2013 online issue of PLoS One suggests that 23 percent of people who experience a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA, or mini-stroke) develop PTSD within the first year following their medical emergency. An earlier investigation by the same re-searchers suggested that 12 percent of individuals who experience heart attacks or unstable angina develop PTSD and face twice the risk of another heart event or death compared to people without PTSD.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Serious and/or long-lasting symptoms of PTSD call for professional assessment, Dr. Pitman says. 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 that absorb your attention, such as hobbies, an exercise regimen, or social relationships.
- 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 ac-tivity.
- 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.
“A health crisis that involves the threat of significant injury or death, especially if it is unexpected and highly distressing, can cause an individual to develop PTSD,” says Roger K. Pitman, MD, an MGH psychiatrist who heads PTSD research efforts at MGH. “If PTSD is not diagnosed and treated, the mental disorder can delay a patient’s recovery and impair his or her health in the future. It can also lead to problems such as interpersonal difficulties, employment problems, and substance abuse.”
People with PTSD often find themselves re-experiencing the traumatic event and developing severe distress and physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, and gastrointestinal upset when recalling the event.
“They may make efforts to avoid reminders of the traumatic event, have difficulty pursuing the normal activities of daily living, and experience emotional numbing,” says Dr. Pitman. “Patients with PTSD are often so involved with the memories of their traumatic experience that they find it difficult to live in the present. They may experience a constant state of emotional arousal and hypervigilance (being constantly alert for threats), which may involve such symptoms as irritability, insomnia, and trouble with memory and focus.
“Many cases of PTSD never come to the attention of clinicians. That’s why it is important that individuals who have symptoms following a traumatic event seek an assessment from a mental health pro-fessional.”
Damage to Health
“People who have PTSD are in constant ‘fight-or-flight’ mode,” explains Dr. Pitman. “Their systems respond by mobilizing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can have adverse health consequences. In people who are already experiencing a health crisis, the added burden of PTSD can lead to a worse prognosis.”
The deleterious health effects associated with PTSD affect both mind and body. They include impaired functioning of the immune system; greater risk for physical conditions including autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease), respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, problems with the reproductive system, diabetes, and chronic pain; and greater risk for mental conditions such as depression, eating dis-orders, and drug and alcohol abuse. To make matters worse, health behaviors and adherence to medications are often poor among individuals with PTSD.
“Feelings of distress following a medical crisis or any other type of traumatic event are normal, but people should seek medical advice if they experience especially debilitating symptoms, or struggle for longer than a month with intrusive thoughts, serious anxiety, or difficulty resuming the activities of daily living,” says Dr. Pitman. “PTSD is usually treated with psychotherapy, or medications such as anti-depressants or the antihypertensive called prazosin, or a combination of medications and therapy.”