Time heals all wounds – or so the saying goes. Sadly, when trauma strikes, time may have little to no healing impact on the devastating effects. It could be one week, one year, one decade after the event and things are not yet be back to the way they were before. In fact, life may be far from normal. Such is the case with the psychiatric disorder known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a serious psychiatric condition that affects millions of Americans. Left untreated, this troubling disorder can destroy the life of the person who lives with it as well as the lives of those closest to him or her. However, every single day people with posttraumatic stress disorder learn to manage their condition and live a happy, fulfilling life. The first step in getting help, though, is recognizing the signs of PTSD. Here’s what you need to know:
PTSD Can Follow Any Traumatic Event
It can’t be PTSD – she didn’t even get hurt! One of the most common misconceptions about the disorder is that it only affects combat veterans. While veterans have a higher risk for developing PTSD, it can strike anyone who experiences any kind of traumatic event – regardless of age, gender, or occupation. For instance, a child might develop symptoms after being mildly injured in a car accident that killed someone else in the vehicle. It can also affect the victims of a natural disaster, such as those who watched helplessly as their home and belongings washed away in a flood.
Violent crime victims may also develop PTSD, such as an elderly man who was mugged or a woman who has been raped. It can even affect those who witness a trauma, such as an EMT who responds to a mass shooting like the one that took place in a Colorado movie theater earlier this year.
PTSD in Adults
Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms are grouped into three categories. When a person suffers with the condition, they’ll experience symptoms from all three groups.
- Re-experiencing the trauma symptoms
- Intrusive memories that interrupt everyday life
- Flashbacks in which the person acts or feels like they’re in the middle of the event again
- Reoccurring nightmares about the trauma
- Intense distress or irritability when reminded of the event
- Physical reactions, like rapid breathing, sweating, or nausea, when remembering or being reminded of the trauma
- Increased distress as the anniversary of the event approaches
- Avoidance symptoms
- Feeling emotionally detached from others
- Experiencing hopelessness about the future (“No one will ever love me” or “I know I’m going to die young”)
- Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
- Arousal or anxiety symptoms
- Bouts of moodiness or anger
- Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- A sense of being “on alert” or “on guard” (also called hypervigilance)
- Developing a destructive addiction to alcohol, drugs, or even gambling
- Suicidal thoughts or actions are another potential symptom of PTSD. If you or someone you love has thoughts of committing suicide, take them seriously and seek help immediately
PTSD in Children
The warning signals of posttraumatic stress disorder are somewhat different in children than in adults. Red flags that parents and caregivers should watch out for include:
- Fear of being separated from parents or other caregivers
- Acting younger than their actual age
- Regressing with regards to previously learned skills (e.g. an older child may start to wet the bed after years of being dry at night)
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Incorporating the traumatic event into playtime, drawings, or story telling
- Developing new phobias that may or may not seem to be related to the trauma
- Reporting physical pain that has no identifiable cause
Risk Factors for PTSD
When trying to figure out if you or a loved one is suffering from PTSE, it can be helpful to understand the factors that increase the chance someone will develop it. Many of us live through traumatic events during our lifetime, but people are more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder as a result. Your risk for developing PTSD is greater if you have:
- Experienced previous trauma
- Another psychiatric disorder, such as depression
- An immediate family member with depression, PTSD, or other psychiatric disorders
- Experienced a trauma that was particularly intense or lasted for an extended period of time
If you or a loved one is experiencing changes in mood or behavior following a traumatic event – even if it’s been several weeks – it’s time to get help. A mental health professional can evaluate you to determine an accurate diagnosis. Therapists have a range of tools to help people manage symptoms of the disorder. Treatment options, like psychotherapy and PTSD support groups, can help you explore your feelings about the event and learn to cope with them in a healthy way. Medication can be beneficial in reducing some symptoms, although it is most effective when used in conjunction with therapy.
A treatment plan should also address the other issues posttraumatic stress disorder can cause. For example, some people with PTSD also struggle with an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. The symptoms also create relationship problems that fracture friendships and separate families. For example, research shows that American veterans with PTSD have much higher divorce rates than those without the condition .
Don’t let lose yourself or a loved one to the challenges of PTSD. When time hasn’t healed the emotional scars of a traumatic event, you’ll need help. If you suspect this condition, contact a mental health professional who’s experienced in handling posttraumatic stress disorder. He or she will discuss effective treatment options, and help you begin to heal.