PTSD, which is short for post-traumatic stress disorder, can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a variety of traumatic events. Some difficulty coping with a traumatic event is normal, but symptoms should be expected to improve with time and by taking care of yourself. In the case of PTSD, however, symptoms may worsen over time, interfere with your ability to function properly on a daily basis, and persist for months or years.
Many people encounter some sort of traumatic event at some point, but not everyone will develop PTSD as a result of it. It is estimated that 70 percent of American adults experience a traumatic event at some point in life. Of that 70 percent, about 20 percent of people will develop PTSD in response to what they experienced.
Watching a loved one struggle with PTSD can leave you feeling helpless and overwhelmed. It is difficult to witness someone close to you experience a traumatic event and then struggle to recover after. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help them get better.
After experiencing a traumatic event, people with PTSD have a very difficult time adjusting to what they witnessed. They may develop intense flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and be unable to control their thoughts about what happened.
PTSD is triggered by the experience of a traumatic event, but less is known about why some people develop PTSD in response to such an event and why others do not. Mental health experts agree that the risk of developing PTSD is related to a combination of factors. The amount and severity of the trauma you encountered and any family history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, as well as your temperament all affect the likelihood of developing PTSD or not.
Additional risk factors for PTSD include:
Common events that lead to PTSD include exposure to combat and war conditions, childhood abuse, sexual violence, physical assault, severe accidents, being attacked or threatened with a weapon, natural disasters, kidnapping, and life-threatening medical conditions or events.
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Symptoms of PTSD typically occur within three months of the traumatic event, but they can also be triggered by something years later. When symptoms do come on, they tend to cause problems in the individual’s ability to function at school and work as well as in social situations and relationships.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are four main types of symptoms:
Intrusive memories or re-experiencing symptoms: recurrent and distressing memories, flashbacks, upsetting dreams or nightmares, and severe emotional or physical distress to reminders of the event
Avoidance symptoms: avoiding thinking or talking about the event; avoiding places, people, and activities that remind you of the event
Negative thinking and mood symptoms: negative thoughts about yourself, hopelessness, memory problems, difficulty maintaining relationships, detachment from family and friends, lack of interest in once enjoyable activities, difficulty feeling happy, and feeling emotionally numb
Physical and emotional arousal and reactivity symptoms: easy to startle or frighten, always looking out for danger, self-destructive behavior, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, angry outbursts, aggressive behavior, and overwhelming guilt or shame
It is also important to note that children, particularly those under age 6, can have extreme reactions to trauma and exhibit additional symptoms. Symptoms observed in young children struggling with PTSD in addition to the symptoms listed above include:
You don’t need to experience all of the above symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD. At least one symptom must be present from each category for at least one month to be diagnosed with the disorder. Symptoms will vary from person to person and are likely to change for each individual over time. Symptoms may seem more intense at times while being less intrusive at others.
If symptoms continue to persist, however, with no sign of really getting better, it may be time to seek support from a mental health professional. The sooner you can get help, the sooner you will be able to find relief from your symptoms and prevent them from escalating to anything worse.
The two main modes of treatment for PTSD are medication and therapy. If someone is suicidal or has been struggling with severe and debilitating symptoms of PTSD for an extended period, it may be time to intervene with medications.
Helping the individual speak to their doctor or mental health provider is the first step toward getting them medical attention that could be lifesaving.
“Most doctors recommend a combination of medication and therapy. Antidepressants are commonly used to treat PTSD symptoms. They may help alleviate symptoms enough so that the person feels capable and motivated to participate in therapy.
Participating in therapy is a key step to recovery as it helps the individual process the traumatic event, gain control over their thoughts and experience of the event, and move forward freely with life.”
PTSD can be a difficult condition to deal with. Fortunately, there are many organizations available that are ready to help individuals and their families who are affected by this condition.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers free resources and support for individuals and their families with finding treatment for a wide range of mental health issues, including PTSD. The NAMI hotline can be reached at 1-800-950-NAMI.
The Veterans Crisis Line is a helpline available for U.S. veterans and their families. It also provides free resources and support in finding a treatment program near you. The helpline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or via text at 838255. A free online chat service is also available.
If you are concerned for the immediate safety of a loved one who is exhibiting suicidal thoughts or has expressed plans for suicide, call 911 or bring them to an emergency room right away. People who display suicidal ideation need emergency medical care to ensure their safety.
HelpGuide (October 2018). Helping Someone with PTSD. Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/helping-someone-with-ptsd.htm
Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. How Common is PTSD in Adults? Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp
Mayo Clinic (July 2018). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967
National Institute on Mental Health (February 2016). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2020, May 5) Treatment for PTSD. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/treatment