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Common Questions About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What is post traumatic stress disorder?

People may suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after they have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event which was either life-threatening or caused them to feel intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Examples of such traumatic events include:

  • rape or sexual abuse
  • kidnapping or mugging
  • physical abuse
  • airplane or car crash
  • serious accidents
  • hurricanes, tornados, or fires
  • war or combat
  • terrorism

While it is common to experience a brief period of anxiety or depression after such events, people with PTSD experience such severe and long-lasting symptoms that they have difficulty functioning.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

People who suffer from PTSD often relive the traumatic experience through nightmares and flashbacks, or experience great psychological or physiological distress when faced with reminders of the trauma. As a result, many people with PTSD will persistently avoid all thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the incident, as well as activities, places, or people that may trigger memories. PTSD sufferers may feel emotionally detached, withdraw from friends and family, and lose interest in everyday activities. They may be easily angered, startled or irritated, or feel on guard all the time.

Other physical and emotional problems from PTSD may include:

  • sleep problems
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • trembling or twitching
  • gastrointestinal or immune system problems
  • substance abuse

How common is PTSD?

According to National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 3.6% of adults in the United States, or 5.2 million people, suffer from PTSD during the course of a year. Thirty percent of men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD.

When does PTSD first occur?

PTSD can develop at any age. Symptoms typically develop within 3 months after the traumatic event occurred, although sometimes they may not develop until a year later. The duration of the illness varies; some people recover within 6 months while others suffer much longer.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

According to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Alliance, the most critical steps in treating PTSD often are the most difficult: recognizing the problem and getting help. There are many reasons why this can be hard to do:

  • People who have experienced an extremely traumatic event may hope, or even expect, to be able to "handle it" and "get over it" on their own.
  • Sometimes people feel guilty about what happened and may mistakenly believe they are to blame or deserve the hurt and pain. Sometimes the experience may be too personal, painful or embarrassing to discuss.
  • PTSD can make a person feel isolated or alone, making it difficult to reach out for help.
  • People with PTSD don't always make the connection between the traumatic event and the emotional emptiness, anger, anxiety and sometimes physical symptoms they unexpectedly find themselves feeling months, even years, after the trauma.

A psychologist, social worker or other qualified healthcare professional who provides counseling related to trauma can identify whether a person has PTSD and can discuss options for an appropriate treatment regimen.

What treatments are available?

Research has shown that different types of therapy have been beneficial. The most traditional is to provide a safe place for people to talk about their trauma and their feelings associated with it. Having someone else hear and acknowledge the reality of the trauma is an important part of the recovery process for people suffering from PTSD. Other therapies focus on managing symptoms and learning how to change the negative and destructive thought patterns brought on by memories of the event. Medications, such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, can ease the symptoms of PTSD, as well as enhance the effectiveness of psychotherapy.

For more information on PTSD visit the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at www.ptsd.va.gov