PTSD Awareness – When Stress Becomes Something Bigger

June 02, 2017

Stress is something that can have serious ramifications on your health with symptoms including headache, nervous stomach, fatigue, insomnia, and more. Accordingly, chronic stress can really take a toll on one’s wellbeing and when coupled with memories of a traumatic event, the impact it can have on one’s life can be disruptive if not completely debilitating.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing trauma. PTSD can happen after one trauma or after exposure to many events over time, but an individual cannot be diagnosed with PTSD unless they’ve gone through or witnessed a traumatic event. And while most people associate PTSD with like veterans returning from war, it’s more common than that.

“Estimates suggest roughly 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men in the U.S. will develop PTSD at some point in their lives,” says Indiana University clinical psychologist Zachary W. Adams, Ph.D., HSPP.

With June being PTSD awareness month, it seemed like a good time to further explore this syndrome and how it may best be treated if you or someone you love is exhibiting symptoms.

How can I tell if it’s just stress or PTSD?

It is common for people to have some emotional, physical, or social difficulties in the immediate aftermath of a trauma. For example, they may have trouble sleeping, or struggle to connect with loved ones in the same way as before. “For most people, symptoms resolve within a few weeks or months and do not cause long-term problems,” says Dr. Adams. “However, if symptoms continue for over a month and interfere with one’s ability to carry out normal daily activities —work, school, relationships — then the person may have PTSD.”

It is important to note that traumas are not the same as other sorts of stressful events (e.g., difficult tests, breakups, moving, changing jobs). “Even though those events can cause anxiety, sleep problems, and other emotional and physical health concerns, they would not be considered traumatic unless there was a serious threat to life or limb associated with them,” says Dr. Adams. As such, the reaction someone has to non-traumatic adversities would not be considered PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but it’s possible they may not appear until months or even years later. Triggers can be internal to the person (memories, emotions) or external to the person (people, places, objects, noises, smells). Broadly speaking, Dr. Adams says there are four groups or types of symptoms that are common with PTSD:

  • Re-experiencing/intrusion: Flashbacks (feeling like one is actually experiencing the event again), nightmares, and bad thoughts or memories that come into mind during times when a person doesn’t want them to.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding thoughts, situations, people, places, conversations or activities that may trigger strong feelings or memories of the trauma.
  • Increased arousal or reactivity: Being on high alert for danger, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, physical aches and pains, being more easily startled, as well as being more angry, irritable, or even reckless than before.
  • More negative feelings and beliefs: Adverse thoughts about themselves, about other people, and about the world; can include lack of interest in activities or socializing that they used to enjoy, strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or shame, lack of trust in others, or emotional numbness.

Who might experience PTSD?

“Anyone who experiences a serious traumatic event where he or she feared for his or her life or safety or for the life of someone else may develop PTSD — including children, adolescents, civilians, active duty military and veterans,” says Dr. Adams.

What are the most effective treatments for PTSD?

The two main types of PTSD treatment are psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) and medication. These types of treatment can be used separately or in combination. Several types of psychotherapy for PTSD have been studied in research trials to determine which are effective in reducing symptoms and improving patients’ wellbeing. “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for PTSD and involves working with a therapist to change how you think and feel about the trauma,” says Dr. Adams. “Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolonged Exposure (PE) are two types of CBT that have strong support from research studies; in children, Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT) is the most widely studied and supported treatment for PTSD.” Another kind of therapy is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which also involves talking about the trauma.

What should you do if you think you might be suffering from PTSD?

“I would encourage folks to contact a medical or mental health professional and ask for help and usually they’ll start with an assessment to determine whether it is PTSD or other problems that might be causing concern,” says Dr. Adams. “You can also talk to other trusted people in your life (close friends and family, clergy, etcetera) and seek support; there are many options available including mental health professionals, support groups, crisis counseling, and even self-help resources.”

The sooner you are able to seek treatment and support the better, but remember that it’s never too late to get help.

-- By Kimberly Dawn Neumann

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