It’s okay to feel overwhelmed after being involved in or witnessing a traumatic life experience. For most people, these feelings usually subside with time. However, for some people, the effects of trauma do not go away and may get worse with time. When this happens, you may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that may develop after living through or witnessing a shocking, terrifying, or life-threatening event. It can be caused by any number of events, including military combat, natural disasters, sexual assault/abuse, car accidents, child abuse/neglect, domestic violence, terrorism, or any other form of traumatic experience.
PTSD affects an estimated 7.7 million people aged 18 years and above in the United States – which translates to about 3.6 percent of the U.S. population.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD symptoms can be classified into four groups as outlined below:
Intrusive symptoms refer to the experience of reliving the traumatic event, even when the person is not directly in danger. These symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks or visions. The memories can be so intense and vivid that the person may feel like they are going through the event all over again.
Avoidance symptoms refer to the tendency to avoid anything that reminds the person of the traumatic event. This may include avoiding people, places, things, thoughts, or situations that trigger memories of the trauma.
For instance, a person who developed PTSD after being in a car accident may go to great lengths to avoid driving or even being in a car altogether.
Negative Alterations in Cognition and Mood
These symptoms refer to changes in the way the person thinks and feels about themselves and the world around them. This may include feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame, as well as negative beliefs about oneself or the world.
People with PTSD may also experience difficulty remembering important details about the traumatic event or have a distorted sense of time. Additionally, they may experience a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy and have challenges feeling positive emotions.
Changes in Emotional and Physical Reactions
These symptoms refer to physical and emotional reactions to reminders of the traumatic event. This may include irritability, anger, rage, mood swings, and difficulty sleeping or concentrating. People with PTSD may also have an exaggerated startle response, experience anxiety attacks, or find it hard to relax (always being on the lookout for danger).
Is PTSD a Mental Illness?
While PTSD symptoms often manifest as emotional and physical disturbances, at its core – it is a psychological disorder that affects how the brain processes and stores information related to traumatic experiences.
Studies have shown that several areas of the brain are involved in PTSD. These include the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex – all of which play a role in memory, emotional responses, and reasoning.
In people with PTSD, these brain centers often display impaired functioning. The result is an inability to distinguish or separate present and past experiences, which can lead to recurrent intense physical and emotional reactions even in the absence of danger.
Treatment for PTSD
The good news is that PTSD is treatable, and many people with this condition have found ways to manage their symptoms and live healthy, productive lives. The most common treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two.
Therapy can help people with PTSD to process their traumatic memories in a safe and supportive environment. Common approaches include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and prolonged exposure therapy (PE). It can also help to develop healthy, adaptive coping strategies and build resilience.
Medication can also be effective in treating PTSD. Commonly prescribed medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and antipsychotics. Unlike therapy, medications only help suppress the symptoms and do not address the root cause of your PTSD. As such, they should only be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes therapy and lifestyle modifications.
PTSD is a debilitating mental illness that can develop after witnessing or living through a deeply traumatizing experience. While it can be overwhelming, the good news is that PTSD is treatable. With the right combination of psychotherapy, medication, and healthy lifestyle choices, you can learn to manage your symptoms and live a healthy, productive life.