It’s normal to experience fear or sadness after undergoing trauma. However, some people develop more severe symptoms following a stress event. A psychological disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) occurs when people continue to experience problems in the days and weeks after a trauma. According to the National Institutes of Health, 3.6% of American adults suffered from PTSD last year, with the condition affecting significantly more women than men.
Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
PTSD used to be termed shell shock to describe the lingering effects of combat on World War I and World War II veterans. But you don't have to be a war veteran to suffer the extreme effects of a trauma that rocks your foundation to the point of triggering PTSD. In 1980, PTSD was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder with recognized symptoms.
If you’ve experienced a stressful, scary, or upsetting event, you could be at risk for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. A number of incidents can result in this debilitating condition, including:
- Auto accidents
- Physical assaults, robberies, and muggings
- Sexual assaults, including rapes
- Prolonged periods of violence or neglect
- Military service, hostage experience, or terrorist attacks
- Serious illness or injury
- Natural disasters
- Death of a loved one
It’s important to note that not every person who experiences a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD. However, those who do experience PTSD symptoms are at a higher risk for suicide. In fact, one study revealed that 27% of PTSD patients have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. If you or someone you love has suffered a trauma, be sure to stay alert for the development of PTSD.
Identifying PTSD Symptoms
PTSD symptoms tend to appear within three months of a stress event but may occur years later. While the symptoms of PTSD vary from patient to patient, they are typically severe enough to disrupt daily activities. PTSD can last from a few months to many years, and early treatment is the best way to alleviate symptoms and improve overall wellness.
In most cases, patients must see a psychologist to be diagnosed with PTSD. If you’ve experienced the following symptoms for at least 1 month, you may be suffering from this serious condition.
- Re-experiencing symptoms: such as flashbacks, nightmares, and frightening thoughts
- Avoidance symptoms: such as keeping your distance from certain places or objects
- Reactivity symptoms: including fear, tension, sleeping difficulties, and anger
- Cognition symptoms: such as memory problems, negative thoughts and feelings, guilt, and loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Additionally, individuals with PTSD may suffer unexplained physical symptoms, also called somatic complaints, and changes in personality. Be alert to these signs in yourself and your loved ones so you can seek immediate PTSD help.
PTSD is often not a standalone condition and can be accompanied by other anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
PTSD in Children and Teens
PTSD can strike children and adults alike, but symptoms manifest differently in young children. They may...
- Wet the bed even when potty trained
- Be unable to talk
- Act out the event while playing
- Appear needy and clinging
Teens and adolescents with PTSD may react in a similar manner as adults. Behavior may become erratic, disrespectful, aggressive, and sometimes vengeful.
How Does PTSD Affect the Brain?
It appears that PTSD actually modifies certain regions of the brain, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the mid-anterior cingulate cortex, and the right inferior frontal gyrus. Some of these areas, such as the amygdala and the mid-anterior cingulate cortex, become hyperactive, while others, the hippocampus, right inferior frontal gyrus, ventromedial PFC, dorsolateral PFC, and orbitofrontal cortex, become hypoactive to the point of atrophy.
An understanding of how PTSD affects the brain helps mental health professionals and PTSD sufferers gain clarity of the cause of the symptoms, and may lead to even more effective PTSD treatments.
Effective PTSD Treatments
Psychologists recommend both medication and talk therapy (or cognitive behavioral therapy) for the treatment of PTSD. Because every patient is different, and PTSD has a disparate effect from one person to another, you might need to try a few treatment options before finding one that works.
Trauma-focused psychotherapies have the highest success rate in treating post-traumatic stress syndrome. This type of therapy focuses on the traumatic experience and the patient’s memory of it. By using strategies like visualization, talking, and thinking about the incident, patients can uncover unhelpful beliefs about the trauma and its meaning.
Many patients benefit from exposure therapy, in which they face their fears in an attempt to gain control over them. In some cases, PTSD patients undergo virtual reality therapy, in which they enter a virtual environment resembling the one in which the trauma occurred. In other cases, they may write about their traumatic experience or use mental imagery.
Medication can also be a helpful option for PTSD treatment. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, antidepressants known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) have proven helpful in treating PTSD symptoms. These drugs work by altering the level of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain and can help reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Some patients have also noticed an improvement in symptoms as a result of nutritional supplements. According to a study titled “Administration of an Amino Acid-Based Regimen for the Management of Autonomic Nervous System Dysfunction Related to Combat-Induced Illness,” taking amino acids can improve symptoms of PTSD while eliminating some of the side effects associated with other treatments.
Talk to your doctor or another mental health professional trained to treat mental illnesses to determine what treatment is best for you.
PTSD Help for the Future
It’s important to note that the symptoms of PTSD can last for weeks, months, or even years.
You can find out more information about PTSD, including treatment options, support groups, and additional resources at the National Center for PTSD website.