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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can develop in anyone who’s experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, a series of traumatic events or a traumatic set of circumstances.
Symptoms of PTSD can vary depending on whether they appear in an adult or a child. They can also vary in severity and even show up as physical pain, in the form of headaches, muscle tension or nausea.
Swedish mental health expert and clinical social worker Kelly Barton, MPH, LICSW, discusses some of the signs of PTSD, as well as what to do if you’re worried you or a loved one is suffering from the disorder.
Trauma can affect anyone, from a 2-year-old to a 92-year-old. And it comes in many forms, from an isolated incident, like surviving an active shooter situation, to a prolonged experience, like suffering repeated abuse as a child.
While many people exposed to a traumatic event will experience post-traumatic stress symptoms in the days and weeks following, some will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is diagnosed as a mental health condition.
We talked to Kelly Barton, MPH, LICSW, a clinical social worker with Swedish Primary Care – Snoqualmie, to learn more about PTSD — including its symptoms, impacts and treatments.
What is PTSD?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines post-traumatic stress disorder as a psychiatric condition that can develop in people who’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, a series of traumatic events or a traumatic set of circumstances.
Although PTSD has gone by other names in the past, such as “shell shock” during World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II, the disorder doesn’t just affect veterans. It can impact anyone, including children and teenagers, and it’s actually twice as common in women as it is in men.
According to Psychology Today, 7.5 million to 8 million people each year are diagnosed with PTSD, and, on average, around seven out of 100 people develop the disorder after experiencing a significant traumatic event.
What causes PTSD?
PTSD is caused by an experience that feels traumatic to a person, Barton explains. Because traumatic events can be experienced differently from person to person, not everyone who experiences the same trauma will react the same way, and some people will go on to develop PTSD while others won’t.
Examples of PTSD
Examples of experiences that can cause PTSD include:
- A natural disaster
- A rape or sexual assault
- A serious car accident
- A terrorist act
- War or combat
Symptoms of PTSD
People with PTSD often have intense thoughts and feelings related to an experience from their past that linger for a long time. They may relive the experience through flashbacks or nightmares. They also may avoid situations or people that remind them of their past trauma and may react in negative ways to otherwise normal events, such as a car honking or an accidental touch by a stranger on the bus.
In most cases, symptoms of PTSD develop within three months of the traumatic event, but they can also appear later. Once they appear, they typically persist for months and even years.
PTSD symptoms can vary in severity, but they generally fall into one of four categories:
- Intrusion (or re-experiencing): The repetition of intrusive thoughts or memories, distressing dreams or flashbacks.
- Avoidance: Avoiding people, places or situations that trigger thoughts or memories of a traumatic experience.
- Alterations in cognition and mood: The inability to remember aspects of the traumatic event, a decline in interests you used to enjoy, a detachment from other people, or distorted beliefs about yourself.
- Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Irritability or frequent outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, irrational suspicion, and trouble concentrating or sleeping.
Young children may experience different symptoms than adults. For example, they may:
- Wet the bed (after they’re toilet trained).
- Forget how to talk, or find themselves unable to talk.
- Act out the event during playtime.
- Be unusually clingy with a parent or other caregiver.
While older children and teenagers are more likely to experience symptoms similar to adults, they also may develop disrespectful or destructive behaviors.
What are the ways PTSD can affect your life?
Even though you may not realize the connection, PTSD can cause physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, headaches, chronic pain in the back or joints, fatigue, muscle tension and nausea.
The disorder can also affect relationships, sleep, appetite, concentration, and your emotional and mental health.
In addition, PTSD has been linked to a decreased life expectancy.
How can you recognize PTSD — in yourself or in a loved one?
Often, PTSD involves emotional and physical discomfort, including sleep disturbance and anxiousness, especially when exposed to stresses similar to the past traumatic event or when thinking about the event. Other common indicators of PTSD are frequent flashbacks and heightened fight-or-flight sensations.
In addition, PTSD commonly occurs with other, related conditions, such as depression and substance use.
If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from PTSD, talk to a health care professional, whether it’s a trusted primary care provider or a recommended counselor. If it’s an emergency situation, call the 24/7 crisis line at 988 or go to the emergency room.
How is PTSD diagnosed?
To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have experienced an upsetting traumatic event in your past. It could either have been directly experienced by you, witnessed as something happening to someone else, or something you learned happened to someone else, such as a close family member or friend. It also could be something you were repeatedly exposed to, such as a police officer or social worker regularly hearing about the details of child abuse cases.
Although many people exposed to a traumatic event will have PTSD symptoms in the days or weeks following, PTSD isn’t diagnosed unless symptoms last for more than a month and affect a person’s day-to-day life.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month to be diagnosed with PTSD:
At least one intrusion (or re-experiencing) symptom, such as:
- Frequent flashbacks
- Scary thoughts
At least one avoidance symptom, such as:
- Avoiding people, places or situations that remind you of the traumatic event
- Avoiding talking or thinking about the traumatic event
At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms, such as:
- Startling easily
- Erupting in angry outbursts
At least two cognition and mood symptoms, such as:
- Trouble remembering important parts of the traumatic event
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
How is PTSD treated?
Similar to how not everyone who experiences a traumatic event goes on to develop PTSD, not everyone diagnosed with PTSD requires treatment. In some cases, PTSD symptoms go away on their own, typically with the help of family, friends or a support group. But others need more intensive treatment to recover from the distress they sustained and continue to suffer from months or years after an event. Luckily, PTSD is treatable, and the earlier someone gets treatment, the better their chances of recovery.
Types of treatment for PTSD
Two of the most common treatment types for PTSD are psychotherapy and medication. Most psychotherapies involve cognitive behavioral therapy techniques designed to help someone with PTSD reprocess their memory of the trauma.
For people with PTSD who don’t want to expose themselves to reminders of their past trauma, other psychotherapies, such as interpersonal supportive and psychodynamic therapies, may be helpful. These treatments focus on the emotional and interpersonal aspects of the disorder.
In addition, medication can help control symptoms of PTSD. Most often, certain antidepressants are prescribed, either alone or in combination with psychotherapy or other treatments, to help people suffering from PTSD.
Other treatments for PTSD can help, as well. These may include group or family therapy, self-soothing techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises, or complementary and alternative therapies, including acupuncture and yoga.
The most important part of recovering from PTSD is recognizing that you have it and asking for help, Barton says.
“This is a treatable condition, so I highly encourage individuals who think they might be experiencing PTSD symptoms to reach out for support,” Barton says.
Learn more and find a provider
If you’re concerned about PTSD — for yourself or for a loved one — our Behavioral Health and Wellbeing department can help. Our team provides comprehensive behavioral health care, from tele-services to inpatient care, and is dedicated to decreasing and eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness.
To access a behavioral health provider (a licensed clinical social worker, psychologist, addiction medicine specialist or psychiatrist), call 206-320-2961 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
If you are suicidal and need help now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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