Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a potentially debilitating mental health condition that can last for years or even decades without treatment. Almost seven percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, and the social cost of PTSD can be enormous. However, there are effective treatments available for people with PTSD.
Causes and Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD is unique among mental health diagnoses in that it has a specific, identifiable cause. Traumatic experiences in which a person feels that his or her life or safety is in danger may lead to PTSD symptoms. Natural disasters, war, violent crimes, losses, abuse, and more can potentially cause PTSD.
There is some evidence that anxious people are more susceptible to developing PTSD in response to a traumatic event, and the support a person feels and the coping skills he or she utilizes immediately after a trauma can affect whether he or she develops PTSD. People who have experienced several traumatic events, who did not have stable attachments in early childhood, and who experience social isolation may also be more likely to develop PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Common symptoms of PTSD include:
- Intrusive, recurrent thoughts of the traumatic event
- Flashbacks during which the person feels he or she is re-living the traumatic event
- Panic attacks
- Extreme anxiety
- Triggers such as smells, sights, and sounds that can spark a flashback, and avoidance of these triggers
- Problems with emotional regulation, including severe anger, anxiety, or sadness
Treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Trauma can alter the way a person's brain processes information, and therapy for PTSD helps to reshape the way a person views and copes with the trauma. Early intervention immediately after a traumatic event can greatly decrease a person's risk of developing PTSD. Therapists help clients focus on establishing healthy coping mechanisms, reaching out to support systems, and processing the trauma in a safe, productive way.
When early intervention fails or does not occur, trauma-focused therapy can be immensely helpful. Not all forms of therapy are effective for treating PTSD because therapists must walk a fine line between helping the person talk about the trauma and avoiding reactivating traumatic memories. Therapy must be highly structured; simply talking about problems, about family relationships, or about early childhood is typically ineffective.
The following treatments, however, have been shown to help people with PTSD heal:
- Group Therapy - This approach helps trauma victims to network with other people who have experienced similar traumas and to share coping skills. Many veterans' hospitals use group therapy to help returning soldiers discuss their feelings and share coping strategies. Group therapy can also help trauma victims feel less isolated and understand that their PTSD is a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable experience.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) - CBT helps people with PTSD reframe their thoughts and replace them with healthier or more constructive thought patterns. Because PTSD results in so many intrusive, destructive thoughts, CBT can be particularly helpful. Clients may practice several strategies for coping with intrusive thoughts in addition to identifying situations that may re-trigger traumatic feelings.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) - Trauma victims may experience moments during which they are flooded with memories of the trauma and feel they cannot escape. EMDR helps people to process the trauma while moving their eyes or engaging in other forms of physical stimulation. This may help the brain learn to process the trauma differently and cope with feelings of fear and anxiety rather than simply becoming "stuck" in the fear.
- Medication - Medication can help some people with severe PTSD symptoms become functional enough to begin processing their traumatic memories. While some people with PTSD may take medication for the rest of their lives, most people with PTSD use medication as a part of therapy. Anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants can be particularly helpful. When flashbacks result in hallucinations and other medications fail, some psychiatrists may prescribe antipsychotic medications to people with PTSD.
When seeking help for PTSD, look for therapists who have extensive experience or training in trauma treatment. PTSD can be a challenging condition to treat, but therapists with extensive experience or training are more likely to be effective.
- Epidemiology of PTSD. (n.d.). National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/epidemiological-facts-ptsd.asp
- Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (n.d.). Help Guide. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/post_traumatic_stress_disorder_symptoms_treatment.htm
Article Submitted and reviewed by GoodTherapy.org