Post-traumatic Stress and PTSD

Five percent of men and 10% of women in the U.S. suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but many of them don't know they have it. That's partly because many of the symptoms of PTSD look like the symptoms of other conditions such as depression and anxiety. Also, it's because many people with PTSD feel like they're "going crazy' and are therefore afraid to seek assistance in the form of psychotherapy or self-help groups.

What is Post-traumatic Stress and PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress always starts with a trauma or several traumatic events, which is experiencing, being threatened by, or witnessing physical harm, and developing a reaction that includes intense fear and helplessness. However, trauma does not always lead to the full-blown disorder. About one in five persons exposed to trauma go on to develop the condition. Many others do go on to develop anxiety and depression – many more people than who develop PTSD.

Individuals with PTSD suffer from 3 clusters of symptoms. The first group, intrusion, includes nightmares, night terror (waking up gasping or screaming) and flashbacks (experiencing a prior event as if it is happening now). The second cluster, avoidance, includes not remembering certain aspects of the traumatic event or avoiding people or places related to the experience. Individuals often take the blame for what happened and experience shame, even though their actions were unrelated to the incident. They may experience a strange sense of detachment or that they don't fit in anymore.

The third cluster of symptoms is related to arousal. Individuals with PTSD may have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night. They are prone to being irritable and angry. They may become hyper-aware of their surroundings and on the lookout for something bad happening. More often than not, post-traumatic stress involves a loss of trust and a feeling that the world is not a safe place.

PTSD can make it difficult, if not impossible, to function normally. Additional symptoms are less common but nonetheless can happen. For example, some think that someone or some group is out to get them. Some individuals dissociate (space out for periods of time/lose track of time). Everyone 'spaces' from time-to-time, but dissociation is more intense and longer-lasting. Another symptom is to feel as if life isn't real, like you're watching a movie.

Keep in mind that someone may experience just a few of these symptoms or may be experiencing anxiety or depression. Consider visiting this PTSD article at Mental Health Today for specifics about the symptoms of PTSD.

Many with PTSD feel the need to escape. Nearly 1 in 5 individuals with PTSD actually attempt suicide (the ultimate escape). Short of suicide, others attempt to cope in ways that unfortunately only make things worse. These include abusing drugs and alcohol, overeating, gambling, and becoming hyper-sexual.

Events that cause trauma

PTSD can come from a single event or from several. Some events are known to cause PTSD. These include:

  • A disaster
  • Wartime combat
  • Being abused by your partner
  • Bullying
  • Childhood sexual and physical abuse
  • Witnessing abuse of a parent or siblings

However, consider this. Recent studies show that the brain does not distinguish between emotional and physical pain. So, it would appear that emotional abuse can also lead to PTSD.

If it's true that emotional trauma contributes to PTSD, then growing up in a hostile environment can cause trauma, even to the point of PTSD. A history that includes emotional abuse and threats of physical violence means PTSD is a possible outcome.

Contributing to challenges stemming from being traumatized is the inability to come forward to discuss challenges related to the traumatizing event. Since you may have had little to no support for overcoming the trauma, you might feel isolated, which can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. These feelings can create an even riper environment for substance abuse, trapping the trauma inside of you.

Getting better

You might be thinking: Could my experience(s) have given me PTSD? If so, how do I get better?

The answer to both questions begins with being evaluated by a psychotherapist who has experience in treating trauma. However, the mental-health-today website (above) as well as the one listed below have pertinent information. Note that people can have some symptoms and not have full-blown PTSD, but any distressing symptoms, plus depression and anxiety resulting from the incident(s) can be addressed.

Persons with PTSD can and do get better, but it almost never resolves by itself. As an example of why it's so challenging to go it alone, there's a general belief that when someone has an addiction, recovery is the Number One priority. Unlike other conditions, however, when the drug is taken away, people with PTSD can actually get worse. That's why for individuals with both an addiction and PTSD, both need to be treated at the same time, usually through psychotherapy, coupled with a 12-step or another self-help program.

PTSD treatment often includes a blend of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and supportive psychotherapy. For a detailed explanation of PTSD treatment, consider visiting PTSD Support Services. Once you overcome the embarrassment of being victimized or traumatized and reach out to a therapist or a self-help group for support, you're already on your way to getting better.