Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
When the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is brought up, many associate it with military veterans. In the early twentieth century, the majority of diagnoses were made post-combat and known as “shell shock.” But this psychological disorder impacts people of all ages, professions, and walks of life. In fact, nearly 3.5% of the adult population is affected by PTSD.
The onset of this condition is spurred by trauma that can take many forms. Whether it manifests in proximity to a traumatic event or years later, PTSD can interfere quite intensely with daily life. But with time and support from loved ones, it’s possible for individuals with trauma to heal and move forward.
PTSD symptoms vary widely—after all, no two people experience trauma the same. Generally, the disorder is diagnosed after the persistence of the trauma (in memory or dreams), emotional avoidance, and reactive behavior.
Specific symptoms include:
Intrusive memories. Vivid, distressing memories, flashbacks, and recurring nightmares can all be signs of PTSD.
Avoidance. Often, people with PTSD experience mental blockages or gaps in memory. Individuals might voluntarily or involuntarily repress the events.
Negative thoughts and feelings. Overwhelming negative feelings stem from trauma. Panic, paranoia, emotional numbness, and dissociating from relationships with friends and family signify the presence of PTSD.
Emotional reactions and arousal. These reactions can range from uncontrollable outbursts of anger, to being easily startled, to experiencing feelings of guilt and shame.
The medical community recognizes five primary types of PTSD, including:
Normal stress response.This type of response takes place in adults following a singular traumatic event. The recovery time is quick (generally less than one month), and involves building a self-awareness and understanding of the trauma.
Acute stress disorder. Acute stress disorder also occurs after a singular traumatic event, and involves ongoing panic attacks, paranoia, detachment, and more that interfere with daily life.
Uncomplicated PTSD. Uncomplicated PTSD stems from a singular traumatic event and symptoms are milder than in other forms. It is characterized by either reliving the trauma or attempting to repress the trauma, along with feelings of dissociation.
Comorbid PTSD. This type of PTSD accompanies other disorders like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and/or panic disorder. Extra care is taken throughout treatment to manage symptoms of the accompanying disorder(s).
Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD results from a series of or ongoing traumatic events (combat or childhood trauma, for example). Individuals with this type of condition frequently have trouble adjusting to a normal daily routine or returning to work. Symptoms occur at a higher intensity and are more difficult to treat, and the trauma can last for years or a lifetime.
PTSD is caused by experiencing or witnessing one or more traumatic events that are often rooted in violence, abuse, or a death/near-death experience. But not everyone who goes through a traumatic event develops PTSD. Certain people are considered higher risk than others. These potential risk factors include:
- Working as a first-responder, military professional, or other high-stress position
- Having other psychological conditions that could amplify trauma
- Experiencing prolonged trauma
- Being exposed to trauma in childhood
- Possessing a family history of mental health problems
- Lacking a support system
A combination of medications and behavioral therapy are used to treat PTSD. Treatments include:
Psychotherapy. Therapies that involve understanding the trauma and being able to vocalize what has happened are a common way to help those affected overcome PTSD. Therapy may be done individually or in a group setting.
- Cognitive restructuring. This type of treatment helps individuals recognize their symptoms, identify why they might feel a certain way, and overcome feelings that the trauma will recur.
- Exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a powerful way for individuals to face painful memories and learn to accept or work through them. This might employ simulations or describing the event over and over again.
Antidepressants. Individuals who experience intense sadness, negative emotions, or numbness may be prescribed an antidepressant to help with these feelings.
Symptom-specific medications. To minimize specific symptoms someone has or any comorbidities that are present—like a severe panic disorder or trouble sleeping at night for months on end—a physician might prescribe additional medications.
Along with therapy, those with PTSD may benefit from:
Adopting a self-care practice. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise, medication, and more can ease symptoms and reduce stress over time.
Using medicinal cannabis. Not everyone responds well to antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. For an alternative solution, many individuals turn to medical cannabis in states where it is legal. Cannabis has been shown to have anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties with minimal side effects—though one downside is that some people experience paranoia in varieties with high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that provides a high. If this is the case for you, products with a higher ratio of non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) may be more preferable.
Finding a support group. A network of people to talk to, share experiences with, and lean on during particularly tough stretches of time is the best medicine for some. Loneliness can intensify negative emotions, but many people benefit from trauma-specific support groups that provide a safe environment to heal.
As with any psychological disorder, consult a doctor if any symptoms of PTSD occur to determine treatment options.