What is post-traumatic stress disorder and how is it treated?

post-traumatic stress disorder

Years ago the disorder was called shell shock and was thought to only affect soldiers coming home from war. However, we now know that all kinds of trauma can cause PTSD.

What is trauma? Any event that causes extreme stress can be a trauma

Examples include:

car accidents, fires, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes or floods, victims or witnesses of violent crime including rape, physical or sexual abuse, living in areas under terrorist attack, or war victims, living in crime-ridden areas, witnessing any violence or accidents.

After a horrible experience like those above, people should expect to be upset. If the unsettled emotions are still troubling a person more than a month later, help should be sought. Post-traumatic stress disorder disrupts a person’s life, relationships, job, and health. In most cases, PTSD occurs within 3 months of the event, however, it can begin even years later.

Here are some frequent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Emotional numbness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Always edgy, irritable
  • Temper outbursts
  • Intense guilt
  • Memories of the traumatic event either too strong/intrusive or sketchy or missing
  • Physical symptoms, digestive problems, headaches, chest pains, immune system problems, general malaise.

People who have PTSD very often try to avoid thinking or speaking about the event. They will avoid any triggers of the memories, to try and control their overwhelming emotions. They attempt to smother the memories. However, the memories if not dealt with properly, will continue to pop up and intrude upon the person’s life in the form of vivid memories triggered

by certain sounds, smells, situations, or nightmares, or feelings of actually reliving the event. Often a person’s normal response to danger, in the nervous system, stays stuck in the anxious mode. They become easily frightened, angered, or annoyed. All these problems can lead to the person turning to drugs or alcohol to hide from their pain.

When a person avoids thoughts of the trauma, and constantly distracts him/herself with other thoughts, it can be helpful in the short-term. However, to only treat the PTSD by avoiding thinking about it will cause more problems down the road. A person must at some time deal with the trauma. Others may use behavioral avoidance in dealing with their pain. They may avoid all places, people or activities which remind them of their trauma.

Again, as a sole means of treating the problem, avoidance is a faulty solution. Many times victims are afraid to confront the problem because they fear they will be overwhelmed by their emotions. That is why anyone suffering from PTSD should seek professional help. The help can come from a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor or doctor.

Treating PTSD can involve a number of different therapies:

One is with medication. Many patients have success with antidepressant medicines, especially the SSRI’s like Zoloft or Paxil. Selective serotonin uptake reuptake inhibitors slow the uptake of serotonin by neurons in the brain. Serotonin levels are linked to mood, so by keeping the serotonin level higher in the brain, the anxiety and depression are lessened. Psychological therapy may take the form of cognitive therapy, where faulty thinking patterns are addressed.

Another is exposure therapy, where little by little the patient is exposed to the trauma, in a controlled environment. Frequently family therapy is needed to help all the households deal with the trauma’s aftereffects. Group counseling can be highly effective, especially if the members of the group have experienced similar traumas. Talking the event through in a supportive situation can be healing.

If anyone you care for has been through a horrifying experience, be alert to the signs of PTSD and suggest they seek help if you see problems. Treatment can substantially shorten and lessen the pain left after such traumatic events.

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