What is PTSD?

man suffering from PTSDPost-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that people sometimes develop in response to a traumatic event. The disorder often causes symptoms such as avoidance, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks.

Unfortunately, some people who live with PTSD think that they can never recover from their symptoms because they cannot erase the trauma. Mental health care providers can help you reduce symptoms of PTSD or even make a full recovery.

Who Can Develop PTSD?

Approximately  7.7 million adults in the United States live with PTSD. Though children can develop PTSD as well, the statistics on this disorder in children are difficult to come by.

While people often associate PTSD with combat veterans, they are not the only people who can develop the disorder. Anyone who experiences trauma is at risk for PTSD. The key risk factor is experiencing a triggering event, but not everyone with trauma will develop PTSD.

People with any of the following risk factors may be at an increased risk of developing PTSD:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Getting hurt or seeing another person injured or killed
  • A history of mental illness
  • Feeling helpless or horrified during the event
  • A history of substance abuse
  • A lack of support after the triggering event
  • Additional stress caused by the trauma, such as homelessness

Having healthy coping mechanisms and a strong support system can lessen the chance of developing PTSD.

What Can Trigger PTSD?

An initial triggering event is one of the distinguishing factors in diagnosing PTSD. While the violence that combat veterans see is one type of trauma that can trigger PTSD, it is not the only one. Other possible triggers include:

  • Witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime
  • Being affected by a natural disaster
  • Witnessing or being the victim of a terrorist attack
  • Being in or witnessing a serious car accident
  • Train derailments, plane accidents, or other disasters
  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Any other kind of violence or gore

In many cases, people develop PTSD when they are the victims or first-hand witnesses to these events. However, people may also develop PTSD after a close loved one goes through this type of trauma. For example, a parent may develop PTSD after their child is in a car accident.

Types of PTSD and Their Symptoms

Mental health care providers recognize four distinct types of PTSD symptoms:

  • Intrusive Memories: People with PTSD sometimes have flashbacks, obsessive thoughts, and nightmares about the trauma they experienced. These thoughts can be so intense that it feels like they are reliving the event.
  • Changes in Emotional and Physical Reactions: Living with PTSD can cause some people to be on-edge and on-guard all of the time. This can make a person easily startled.
  • Avoidance: The fear that the trauma causes can make some people with PTSD completely avoid anything at-all related to the triggering event. This avoidance can be so severe that people cannot go back to work, social events, or anywhere public.
  • Changes in Thinking and Mood: People with PTSD sometimes have persistent negative thoughts about themselves, others, or the world more generally. They may also experience extremely low or negative moods. These symptoms can cause issues with relationships and memory.

Patients living with PTSD can have one of these types of symptoms or many. Some triggers are more likely to cause specific types of symptoms. For example, combat veterans may be more likely to be easily startled.

PTSD and Comorbid Disorders

Sometimes, people live with PTSD and no other coexisting conditions. However, research shows that the vast majority of people with PTSD live with other mental health disorders as well. Most commonly, people with PTSD also live with:

  • Substance Abuse Disorders
  • Depressive Disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders

The frequent occurrence of coexisting disorders highlights the need for people with PTSD to get high-quality, comprehensive mental health care.

Treatment Options for PTSD

Although the underlying trauma and resulting symptoms of PTSD can be severe, there is hope. Mental health care for PTSD can be effective in reducing symptoms and improving mood. There are several types of treatment options available for people with PTSD.

Some treatments may work well for some people and not as well for others. That’s why it’s important to have an experienced team of mental health care providers who give you all the options. It may take some trial and error. The course of illness is also different for every patient with PTSD. However, getting treatment is one of the most important steps in lessening the severity and length of PTSD.

Medication for PTSD

People with PTSD can often benefit from taking prescription medications such as:

  • Antidepressants: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the use of sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) to treat PTSD.
  • Anti-anxiety Medications: Psychiatrists may prescribe long-term anti-anxiety medications or fast-acting medications to stop the anxious symptoms of PTSD.
  • Prazosin: While studies are still needed to confirm, there is some data to show that this medication suppresses nightmares in people with PTSD.
  • Medication to Treat Coexisting Disorders: Because so many people with PTSD have coexisting mental health disorders, it’s important for psychiatrists to evaluate patients for these disorders and prescribe medication as appropriate.

Therapy for PTSD

Psychologists and licensed therapists can help people with PTSD find healthy ways to process the trauma they experienced. These professionals can use several types of counseling to help patients, including:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Prolonged Exposure
  • Narrative Exposure
  • Group Therapy