What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can occur when someone has seen or lived through trauma. The trauma may be an event that is shocking, scary, or dangerous such as sexual assault, an accident causing physical injury, a life-threatening event, being involved in combat situations, or being exposed to mass conflict. Long-term trauma, such as childhood trauma, may also cause PTSD. In addition, symptoms of PTSD can be seen in people who are supporting loved ones who experienced the trauma, and in those who repeatedly see or hear about traumatic events, such as police officers and rescue workers.
PTSD affects 3.5% of U.S. adults every year. It is estimated that 1 in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. However, not everyone who experiences a trauma will have PTSD.
While we don’t yet understand exactly how someone develops PTSD, we do know that several factors are involved:
- Personal characteristics such as age, gender, race, and genetics.
- Societal factors such as socioeconomic status, education level, marital status, and social support.
- History of previous trauma or repeated trauma, and personal and family psychiatric history.
PTSD can cause physical, behavioral, and mental distress. The symptoms may occur shortly after the traumatic event, or you may experience them after many years.
Features of PTSD can include:
- Re-experiencing of the traumatic event through unwanted memories that may occur in the form of flashbacks or as nightmares. These episodes may cause feelings of fear or panic and can occur randomly or when you experience something that reminds you of the trauma, such as smells, sounds, words, places, or media.
- Avoidance of thoughts, activities, places, or situations that remind you of or are associated with the trauma.
- Looking around carefully in public places.
- Having negative thoughts about yourself or only experiencing negative emotions.
- Experiencing intense emotions or depressed mood.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Changes in behavior ranging from increased irritability, aggression, being easily startled, to reckless and self-destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking or abuse of recreational drugs.
- Feeling disconnected from your body or from the world.
- Not being able to remember details about the traumatic event.
The intensity and symptoms can vary over time and the symptoms you experience may differ from what another person experiences.
You may find that your symptoms prevent you from participating in your daily activities, such as going to work or school, socializing, or completing chores. They may also interfere with your relationships with colleagues, friends, and family.
When to See a Doctor
While it is normal to feel or behave differently after a traumatic event, contact your doctor if:
- Your symptoms are severe or you are having trouble coping with them.
- Your symptoms are lasting for over one month.
- Your life is being disrupted by your symptoms.
Contact your doctor if you think you are having suicidal thoughts. If you feel you may hurt yourself, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
It is vital to seek treatment early to prevent more severe symptoms or complications. There are two main types of treatment available for PTSD, psychotherapy and medication management. However, treatment can look different for each person depending on their needs.
1. Psychotherapy in the form of:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CBT) to isolate the false thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more positive thoughts.
- Group Therapy where you can talk with other survivors in a comfortable and non-judgemental setting.
- Exposure Therapy to go talk about the trauma repeatedly until you no longer find it distressing to talk or think about the memories.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) during which you focus on sounds or the movement of hands, while you discuss and describe your trauma.
2. Medication Management of your symptoms may include:
- Antidepressants such as SSRIs and SNRIs to help control mood-related symptoms of PTSD. They can also decrease symptoms related to sleep and concentration.
- Medications management of alcohol or other substance use disorder.
- Prazosin, an old blood pressure medication that has been found to have some success in treating nightmares and sleep disturbance, and reducing symptoms of PTSD.
Dr. Maria Arizaga, MD
MARIA ARIZAGA, MD
Dr. Maria Arizaga is a Psychiatry Specialist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She graduated with honors from University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 2004. Having more than 17 years of diverse experiences, especially in psychiatry.