By- Dr. David Prescott
About 1 in 30 people experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) in a given year. That risk increases over a lifetime, with 1 in 10 women, and 1 in 20 men, experiencing PTSD at some point in their life. Sadly, many events the past decade have provided psychologists and other mental health professionals with a number of opportunities to learn more about the causes and treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. More optimistically, knowledge of how to more effectively understand and treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has also improved.
How is PTSD Diagnosed?
While many people feel temporarily depressed or anxious after a very upsetting or traumatic event, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder involves a number of characteristic behaviors and experiences. First, the trauma must be outside the realm of normal stressful events. Examples would include being exposed to a situation with a true threat of death or serious injury, or a serious violation of a person’s space and body. Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are typically grouped into 3 categories:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms: Examples of these symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams, or intrusive frightening thoughts. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can trigger re-experiencing.
2. Avoidance symptoms: Avoidance symptoms include staying away from places or events that are reminders of the experience, feeling emotionally numb, having trouble remembering the dangerous event, or losing interest in activities which used to be enjoyable. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.
3. Hyperarousal symptoms: People with PTSD are easily startled, feel tense or ‘on edge’, and often have difficulty sleeping or have angry outbursts. In all cases, to be diagnosed with PTSD the symptoms must persist for more than one month after the traumatic event.
Does Everyone Exposed to a Traumatic Event Develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
It is difficult, if not impossible to specifically identify which people exposed to a traumatic event will develop PTSD. What we have learned is that the determining factors in the development of PTSD include some factors which increase the risk, and protective factors which decrease the risk.
Protective, or Resilience Factors, Include:
• Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family
• Finding a support group after a traumatic event
• Feeling good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
• Having a coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
• Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear.
Factors Which Increase PTSD Risk Include:
• Having a history of mental illness
• Getting hurt
• Seeing people hurt or killed
• Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
• Having little or no social support after the event
• Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home.
What Treatments Are Available for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Many, although not all, people who receive treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder experience some improvement. Statistically, about half the people with PTSD no longer qualify for the diagnosis after one year. There are both short term and long term strategies for coping with PTSD.
Short Term Strategies: Short term strategies, immediately after a traumatic event, are really designed to prevent symptoms of PTSD from occurring in the long run. These strategies include:
• Getting immediate support from friends or family.
• Finding a support with others who had the same or similar experiences.
• Finding a way to learn from the event.
Longer Term Strategies:
• Counseling: Focused counseling on managing anxiety and changing thinking patterns which increase or perpetuate fear often help. This type of therapy is often termed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
• Medication: Medications are often used to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety that go along with PTSD.
• Group Therapy and Support Groups: Particularly after a traumatic event, being with other people who went through the same thing helps reduce the risk of long term problems.
American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/topics/ptsd/index.aspx
National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: http://www.nami.org/
Healthy Living: Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
By- Dr. David Prescott
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