Overcoming Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that consists of a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event where their safety or lives were threatened, in addition to those around them. This can be events such as a serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war, torture or natural disasters such as floods earthquakes etc. These symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. They may also have insomnia and find concentrating more difficult.

It is important to note that although many people who go through traumatic or stressful events may have some difficulty adjusting or coping, these usually get better with good self care and time. If the symptoms are getting worse or have been present for a lengthy period of time (few months to years), as well as interferes with your day-to-day functioning, then you may have PTSD. Getting effective treatment after PTSD develops can be critical to reduce the severity of the symptoms and increase function.

Risk factors

Post traumatic stress disorder is usually developed when an individual goes through, sees, or learns about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual assault. Medical professionals are still unsure as to why some individuals get PTSD while others may not; but similar to most mental health problems, PTSD is most likely caused by a complex mix of the following risk factors:

  • Inherited mental health risks, such as anxiety or depression
  • Experiencing intense or long lasting trauma
  • Lacking a good support system such as family and friends
  • Having substance abuse issues
  • Having a job with a risk of exposure to traumatic events such as military personnel

In addition to this, below are a few of the most common events known to trigger the development of PTSD:

  • Sexual violence
  • Physical assault
  • Combat exposure
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • An accident
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • Natural disasters
  • Torture
  • Kidnapping

What are the associated signs and symptoms?

PTSD symptoms usually start within one of the the traumatic event, however it is not unheard of for the symptoms to appear years after the event. The symptoms can be very debilitating and cause significant problems in an individual’s social life, work and their relationships. These symptoms are usually grouped into four categories namely: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and arousal and reactivity.

The symptoms vary in intensity and frequency from person to person. Symptoms of each of the four types are listed below.

Intrusive memories

  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares of the traumatic event. 
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again(flashbacks). 
  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event. 
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event. 

Avoidance

  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the event. 
  • Avoiding thoughts, conversations or feelings about the event. 

Negative changes in thought and mood

  • Feeling numb or detached from things. 
  • Lack of interest in social activities. 
  • Having difficulty remembering an important part of the original trauma. 
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships. 
  • Hopelessness about the future. 
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions. 

Arousal and reactivity

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Hyper vigilance (excessive awareness)
  • Being easily frightened
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Self destructive behavior
  • Irritability and outburst of anger

How PTSD is diagnosed

In order to diagnose PTSD, your mental health professional will likely perform the following:

  • A physical exam – To check for any possible medical conditions that could be causing the problems or symptoms.
  • Blood tests to check your thyroid and tests such as an ECG or EKG for your heart. 
  • A psychological evaluation – Involves discussing the signs and symptoms of the events that led up to them.
  • Use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that was published by the American Psychiatric Association.

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, it is required for one to have been exposed to at least one of the following:

  • Directly experiencing the traumatic event.
  • You or someone close to you was threatened by the traumatic event. 
  • You witnessed, in person, the traumatic event occurring to others. 
  • Repeated exposure to graphic details of traumatic event, such as military personal/ first responders.

Treating and overcoming PTSD

The primary treatment of PTSD is currently psychotherapy, but has also been known to include medication. These can improve your symptoms by teaching you skills on how to address your symptoms and learning ways to cope if they come up again.

The main types of psychotherapy used in the treatment of PTSD are cognitive therapy, exposure therapy and eye moment desensitization and reprocessing(EMDR).

As far as medications are concerned, there are many medications used to treat PTSD, however the main types used are antidepressants such are SSRI medications, anti anxiety drugs, and Prazosin to reduce/suppress nightmares.  It is important to communicate effectively with your doctor to find the medication that is best for you with the least side effects.

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