What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a complex psychiatric condition that develops in some people after they have experienced or witnessed a severe traumatic event. PTSD can affect a person physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and even spiritually. People who suffer from PTSD often feel great distress when their symptoms occur. For this reason, those with the disorder often make attempts to avoid anything that will trigger their symptoms, including the avoidance of certain people, places, thoughts, feelings, and memories.
What causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
In order to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a person must first be exposed to a severe traumatic event. Specifically, people who develop PTSD have usually experienced a situation in which they feared they would die in a violent way, such as from an assault, natural disaster, or accident. Someone who witnesses another person being hurt in such a way can also develop PTSD. (This includes first responders, medical personnel, and professionals who are repeated exposed to details of child abuse or sexual assault.) People who learn of the actual or threatened death (due to violence or accident) of their loved one are also at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The difference between PTSD and psychological trauma
There is a big difference between the normal life stressors that cause normal psychological trauma and the unique stressors that cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In everyday life, there are many events that can make us feel traumatized. Divorce, the loss of a job, or a miscarriage are all things that can cause great distress. While these events are traumatic—and can certainly make us feel sad, anxious, angry, or depressed—they are not the types of situations that cause PTSD.
The types of stressors that can lead to PTSD are events that make a person panic and fear for survival. Terrifying events such as combat, assault, natural disasters, and horrific accidents trigger a person’s fight-or-flight instinct. This initial physiological response is a key requirement for the eventual development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Witnesses who develop PTSD second-hand usually do so because details of the trauma trigger their own horror and fear for survival.)
How common is Post-Traumatic Success Disorder?
About 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one severe traumatic event in their lifetime. However, the vast majority of these people will not develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Only 7-8% of the population suffers from PTSD at some point in their lives.
Although slightly more men experience severe traumatic events, women are far more likely to develop PTSD. One explanation for this may be that people who suffer multiple traumatic events are at increased risk for developing the disorder. As females are far more likely to be sexually abused in childhood, sexually assaulted as adults, and victims of domestic violence, they have more risk factors for PTSD.
What are the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stay in a state of mental, physical, and emotional crisis long after the actual crisis has passed:
What are remedies for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Because Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people in multiple ways, it often requires multiple types of treatment. Physical symptoms such as hyperarousal, anxiety, depression, and insomnia are often best treated with medication. Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) and neurofeedback have also been shown to be effective at relieving some physical symptoms of PTSD.
Medication alone, though, cannot address all the symptoms of PTSD. At their core, severe traumatic events cause us to question the world and our place in it. In order to resolve these existential questions, it is usually best to seek out some form of talk therapy. In the absence of individual or group psychotherapy, the support of kind, patient, empathetic loved ones can also be therapeutic.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).