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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What caues PTSD?

You may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you’ve been through a traumatic event and are having trouble dealing with it. Such events may include a car crash, rape, domestic violence, military combat, or violent crime. While it is normal to have some anxiety after such an event, it usually goes away in time. But with PTSD, the anxiety is more intense and keeps coming back. And the trauma is relived through nightmares, intrusive memories, and flashbacks (vivid memories that seem real). The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with relationships and make it hard to cope with daily life. But it can be treated. With help, you can feel better.

What causes PTSD?

PTSD may be triggered by something that:

  • Happened to you
  • Happened to someone close to you
  • Was something you witnessed

Examples include:

  • Serious accidents (such as car or train wrecks)
  • Natural disasters (such as floods or earthquakes)
  • Man-made tragedies (such as bombings, a plane crash, shooting)
  • Violent personal attacks (such as a mugging, rape, torture, being held captive, or kidnapping)
  • Military combat
  • Abuse in childhood

What are the risk factors for PTSD?

There are many risk factors for developing PTSD. Recognizing and addressing them can help prevent PTSD, when possible. These risk factors include:

  • Lack of family or social support resources
  • Repeated exposure to traumatic circumstances
  • Personal history of trauma or of an acute stress or anxiety disorder
  • Family history of mental health disorders
  • Personality traits of vulnerability and a lack of resilience
  • History of childhood trauma
  • Personality disorder or traits including borderline personality disorder, paranoia, dependency, or antisocial tendencies.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD last more than a month. They may include:

  • Unwanted or intense memories of a trauma
  • Nightmares
  • Vivid memories (flashbacks) that make you feel like you’re reliving the event
  • Feeling worried, fearful, anxious, or suspicious
  • Strong reactions when you’re reminded of the trauma (or sometimes for no obvious reason at all)
  • Intrusive thoughts about combat, death, or killing
  • Feeling disconnected or isolated, as if you’re “not yourself”
  • Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
  • Feeling agitated, tense, on edge, or easily startled
  • Bursts of anger or irritation
  • Problems concentrating
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep

The symptoms of PTSD may look like other mental health conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

Not every person who goes through a trauma develops PTSD, or experiences symptoms at all. PTSD is diagnosed  if your symptoms last more than one month. Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the trauma, but can also start months or years later.

How long this illness lasts varies. Some people recover within 6 months, others have symptoms that last much longer.

How is PTSD treated?

Specific treatment for PTSD will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the disease
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the disease
  • Your opinion or preference

You may think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. In fact, taking action to make your life better takes a lot of courage. Talking about a trauma can be hard, but it can make a big difference. The main treatment for PTSD is counseling. You’ll work with a trained professional (therapist) to learn new ways to cope with your experiences. Medication may also be prescribed to help with anxiety, depression, or sleep. Most people with PTSD have a combination of counseling and medication for treatment.

Types of Counseling

Counseling is done in a safe environment, either one-on-one or in a group. Group therapy is often done with other people who have been through similar events. PTSD is often treated with one or more of the following forms of counseling. Talk to your health care provider about your options so you can decide on a counseling format that works for you.

  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps you cope with negative thoughts related to the trauma. You’ll work with a therapist to better understand how you think and feel about what happened. And you’ll learn skills to help you cope with the trauma. CPT won’t make you forget about what happened. But it can make the memories easier to live with.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) helps you deal with thoughts and situations related to the trauma in new ways. You’ll learn breathing and relaxation techniques to calm yourself when you encounter triggers. With your therapist’s help, you may enter situations that remind you of the trauma. You’ll learn to lessen your reactions over time, which can help with avoidance. You’ll also talk about the trauma to help you gain control over how you think and feel about it.
  • Other therapies for PTSD include:
    • Coping skills training
    • Acceptance and commitment training
    • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
    • Family counseling
    • PTSD psychoeducation

Key points

  • PTSD is a mental health condition in which a person has experienced a traumatic event that causes long-term stress.
  • The traumatic event can be experienced directly, witnessed, or due to repeated exposure to shocking events. A person can also have PTSD when trauma occurs to a close friend or family member,
  • The person may experience flashbacks, avoid stressful situations, or withdraw emotionally.
  • Diagnosis is made by a health care provider when the symptoms last longer than one month.
  • Treatment involves medications and therapy to decrease the emotional effects of the disorder and increase coping skills.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC
Date Last Reviewed: 2/28/2014
© 2000-2015 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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