What is PTSD?


Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event.

A traumatic event is a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD.

People with PTSD experience three different kinds of symptoms.

1) The first set of symptoms involves reliving the trauma in some way such as becoming upset when confronted with a traumatic reminder or thinking about the trauma when you are trying to do something else.

2) The second set of symptoms involves either staying away from places or people that remind you of the trauma, isolating from other people, or feeling numb.

3) The third set of symptoms includes things such as feeling on guard, irritable, or startling easily.

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In addition to the symptoms described above, we now know that there are clear biological changes that are associated with PTSD.

PTSD is complicated by the fact that people with PTSD often may develop additional disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health.

These problems may lead to impairment of the person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and family problems.

PTSD can be treated with with psychotherapy (“talk” therapy) and medicines such as antidepressants. Early treatment is important and may help reduce long-term symptoms. Unfortunately, many people do not know that they have PTSD or do not seek treatment.

The information in this article will help you to better understand PTSD and the how it can be treated.

How does PTSD develop?

PTSD develops in response to a traumatic event. About 60% of men and 50% of women experience a traumatic event in their lifetime.

Most people who are exposed to a traumatic event will have some of the symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks after the event.

For some people these symptoms are more severe and long lasting. The reasons why some people develop PTSD are still being studied. There are biological, psychological and social factors that affect the development of PTSD.

Some research shows that ethnic minorities, such as Blacks and Hispanics, are more likely than Whites to develop PTSD. One reason for these differences is that minorities may have more contact with traumatic events.
For example, in Vietnam, Whites were in less combat than Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.

Researchers are trying to understand other reasons for the differences in PTSD between the ethnic groups. A person’s culture or ethnic group can affect how that person reacts to a problem like PTSD. For example, some people may be more willing than others to talk about their problems or to seek help.

How long does PTSD last?

The course of PTSD is variable. This means it can be different for different people and that it can change over time. PTSD usually begins right after the traumatic event but it can also be physical abuse.

The most traumatic events for women are rape, sexual molestation, physical attack, being threatened with a weapon, and childhood physical abuse.
PTSD is more common in “at-risk” groups such as those serving in combat.

About 30% of the men and women who served in Vietnam experience PTSD. An additional 20% to 25% have had partial PTSD at some point in their lives.

More than half of all male Vietnam veterans and almost half of all female Vietnam veterans have experienced “clinically serious stress reaction symptoms.” PTSD has also been detected among veterans of other wars. Estimates of PTSD from the Gulf War are as high as 10%.

Estimates from the war in Afghanistan are between 6 and 11%. Current estimates of PTSD in military personnel who served in Iraq range from 12% to 20%.

Who is most likely to develop PTSD?

Most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD. However, the risk for developing PTSD increases if people:

• were directly exposed to the traumatic event as a victim or a witness

• were seriously injured during the trauma

• experienced a trauma that was long lasting or very severe

• saw themselves or a family member as being in imminent danger

• had a severe negative reaction during the event, such as feeling detached from ones surroundings or having a panic attack

• felt helpless during the trauma and were unable to help themselves or a loved one.

Individuals are also more likely to develop PTSD if they:

• have experienced an earlier life threatening event or trauma

• have a current mental health issue

• have less education

• are younger

• are a woman

• lack social support

• have recent, stressful life changes.

Some research shows that ethnic minorities, such as Blacks and Hispanics, are more likely than Whites to develop PTSD. One reason for these differences is that minorities may have more contact with traumatic events.

For example, in Vietnam, Whites were in less combat than Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians. Researchers are trying to understand other reasons for the differences in PTSD between the ethnic groups.

A person’s culture or ethnic group can affect how that person reacts to a problem like PTSD. For example, some people may be more willing than others to talk about their problems or to seek help.

What other problems do people with PTSD experience?

It is very common for other conditions to occur along with PTSD, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

More than half of men with PTSD also have problems with alcohol. The next most common co-occurring problems in men are depression, followed by conduct disorder, and then problems with drugs.

In women, the most common co-occurring problem is depression. Just under half of women with PTSD also experience depression.

The next most common co-occurring problems in women are specific fears, social anxiety, and then problems with alcohol.

People with PTSD often have problems functioning.

In general, people with PTSD have more unemployment, divorce or separation, spouse abuse and chance of being fired than people without PTSD. Vietnam veterans with PTSD were found to have many problems with family and other interpersonal relationships, problems with employment, and increased incidents of violence.

People with PTSD also may experience a wide variety of physical symptoms. This is a common occurrence in people who have depression and other anxiety disorders. Some evidence suggests that PTSD may be associated with increased likelihood of developing medical disorders.

Research is ongoing, and it is too soon to draw firm conclusions about which disorders are associated with PTSD. PTSD is associated with a number of distinctive neurobiological and physiological changes. PTSD may be associated with stable neurobiological alterations in both the central and autonomic nervous systems, such as altered brainwave activity, decreased volume of the hippocampus, and abnormal activation of the amygdala.

Both the hippocampus and the amygdala are involved in the processing and integration of memory. The amygdala has also been found to be involved in coordinating the body’s fear response.

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