What is PTSD?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiences a traumatic event, such as rape or physical assault, combat exposure, disaster, threat to one’s personal integrity, or witnessing an event that involved death or injury to another person. Child neglect and child physical/sexual abuse can cause PTSD.
Most Americans will experience a traumatic event that causes a stress reaction at least once in their lives. Up to 20% of these people will develop PTSD, with women twice as likely as men to have PTSD. If the reactions don't go away over time or disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.
Signs & Symptoms PTSD can cause many symptoms.
These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:
1. Re-experiencing symptoms
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts.
Re-experiencing symptoms can start wit the person’s own thoughts and feelings.Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event also can trigger re-experiencing and may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine.
2. Avoidance symptoms
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
- Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.
Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. 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
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.
Hyperarousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating. It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.
Do children react differently than adults?
Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults. In very young children, these symptoms can include:
- Bedwetting, when they’d learned how to use the toilet before
- Forgetting how or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult.
Older children and teens usually show symptoms more like those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge. Source: National Institutes of Health
PTSD is associated with increased likelihood of co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis are terms used to describe a person who may have started using mood-altering substances to cope with their PTSD.
The following is a list of psychiatric disorders that is most prevalent for people who have PTSD: Alcohol/Drug Abuse and Dependency, Major Depressive Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, and Personality Disorders.
How is PTSD Treated?There is no definitive treatment, and no cure, but there are some treatments that are quite promising.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy involves reinterpreting negative cognitions that elicit highly charged emotions. One form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is Exposure Therapy which uses careful, repeated, detailed imagining of the trauma (exposure) in a safe, controlled context, to help the survivor face and gain control of the fear and distress that was overwhelming in the trauma through the use of relaxation techniques.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
A relatively new treatment that has shown success at treating PTSD is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This mode of treatment involves elements of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy; combined with eye movements, hand taps, or sounds that creates a bilateral stimulation of the brain.
Antidepressant anti-anxiety medications have been effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD. Be aware that each individual who suffers from PTSD may exhibit different symptoms, which then would determine the appropriate medication.
If someone in your family is experiencing some of the symptoms above, talk with them and encourage them to get help by having a psychiatric evaluation done by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. The family member may have difficulty talking about the tragedy because it is too painful, therefore be patient and understanding if he/she does not want to talk about this issue. Educate yourself about PTSD to gain an understanding of your family member’s behavior. Begin to observe what triggers off flashbacks and startled reactions and attempt to minimize the triggers in the home that you have control of. Remember, being supportive and understanding can make all the difference.
For more information, refer to the follow resources:
Coping With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Dealing with tragedy. By Carolyn Simpson and Dwain Simpson. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2002
How to Live with PTSD: The Causes and Characteristics of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. By Beverly J. Peterson and Richard W. Peterson. Cardiff by the Sea, California: Consultors Incorporated, 2000.
PTSD in Children and Adolescents. By Spencer Eth. Washington: American Psychiatric Press, 2001
Why Is Daddy Like He Is?: A Book for Kids About PTSD. By Patience Mason. High Springs, Florida: Patience Press, 1992
Why Is Mommy Like She Is?: A Book For Kids About PTSD. By Patience Mason. High Springs, Florida: Patience Press, 1997