PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death.

Veterans returning home from a war often have PTSD.

The cause of PTSD is unknown. Psychological, genetic, physical, and social factors are involved. PTSD changes the body's response to stress. It affects the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters).

It is not known why traumatic events cause PTSD in some people but not others. Having a history of trauma may increase your risk for getting PTSD after a recent traumatic event.

Symptoms

Symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories:

1. "Reliving" the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity

  • Flashback episodes, where the event seems to be happening again and again

  • Repeated upsetting memories of the event

  • Repeated nightmares of the event

  • Strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that remind you of the event

2. Avoidance

  • Emotional "numbing," or feeling as though you don't care about anything

  • Feeling detached

  • Being unable to remember important aspects of the trauma

  • Having a lack of interest in normal activities

  • Showing less of your moods

  • Avoiding places, people, or thoughts that remind you of the event

  • Feeling like you have no future

3. Arousal

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Startling easily

  • Having an exaggerated response to things that startle you

  • Feeling more aware (hypervigilance)

  • Feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger

  • Having trouble falling or staying asleep

You might feel guilt about the event (including "survivor guilt"). You might also have some of the following symptoms, which are typical of anxiety, stress, and tension:

  • Agitation or excitability

  • Dizziness

  • Fainting

  • Feeling your heart beat in your chest

  • Headache

Signs and tests

There are no tests that can be done to diagnose PTSD. The diagnosis is made based on certain symptoms.

Your doctor may ask for how long you have had symptoms. This will help your doctor know if you have PTSD or a similar condition called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).

  • In PTSD, symptoms are present for at least 30 days.

  • In ASD, symptoms will be present for a shorter period of time.

Your doctor may also do mental health exams, physical exams, and blood tests to rule out other illnesses that are similar to PTSD.

Treatment

Treatment can help prevent PTSD from developing after a trauma. A good social support system may also help protect against PTSD.

If PTSD does occur, a form of treatment called "desensitization" may be used.

  • This treatment helps reduce symptoms by encouraging you to remember the traumatic event and express your feelings about it.

  • Over time, memories of the event should become less frightening.

Support groups, where people who have had similar experiences share their feelings, may also be helpful.

People with PTSD may also have problems with:

  • Alcohol or other substance abuse

  • Depression

  • Related medical conditions

In most cases, these problems should be treated before trying desensitization therapy.

Medicines that act on the nervous system can help reduce anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD. Antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can be effective in treating PTSD. Other anti-anxiety and sleep medicines may also be helpful.

Support Groups