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What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that people sometimes develop in response to a traumatic event. PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” but PTSD does not just happen to combat veterans. it can occur in all people, of any ethnicity, nationality, or culture.

People with PTSD have intense and often disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience long after the traumatic event occurred. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares, they may feel sadness, fear or anger, and may feel detached or estranged from other people. This can lead to avoiding situations or people that remind them of the event, or to having strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as being touched.

It is natural after a dangerous event to have some symptoms or to feel detached from the experience. A health care provider—such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker—who has experience helping people with traumatic events can determine whether your symptoms meet the criteria for PTSD.

Who Can Develop PTSD?

Approximately 12 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD in a given year. People who develop PTSD include adults and children who have been through physical or sexual assault, abuse, accident, disaster, or other serious events.

As a group, LGBTQ+ people have a higher risk of developing PTSD because many have been subjected to a higher victimization rate across their lifespan, including experiences of child abuse and sexual and physical assault, compared to heterosexuals.

The key risk factor for PTSD is experiencing a triggering event; but not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD usually show up within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but they do sometimes emerge later. Having healthy coping mechanisms and a strong support system can lessen the chance of developing PTSD.

People with any of the following risk factors may be at an increased risk of developing PTSD:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Getting hurt or seeing another person injured or killed
  • Feeling helpless or horrified during the traumatic event
  • A lack of support after the triggering event
  • Additional stress caused by the trauma, such as homelessness
  • A history of mental illness
  • A history of substance abuse

What Can Trigger PTSD?

An initial triggering event is one of the distinguishing factors in diagnosing PTSD. While the violence that combat veterans see is one type of trauma that can trigger PTSD, it is not the only one. Other possible triggers include:

  • Witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime
  • Being affected by a natural disaster
  • Witnessing or being the victim of a terrorist attack
  • Being in or witnessing a serious car accident
  • Train derailments, plane accidents, or other disasters
  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Witnessing any other kind of violence

In many cases, people develop PTSD when they are the victims or first-hand witnesses to these events. However, people may also develop PTSD after a close loved one goes through this type of trauma. For example, a parent may develop PTSD after their child is in a car accident.

Types of PTSD and Their Symptoms

Mental health care providers recognize four distinct types of PTSD symptoms:

  • Intrusive Memories: People with PTSD sometimes have flashbacks, obsessive thoughts, and nightmares about the trauma they experienced. These thoughts can be so intense that it feels like they are reliving the event.
  • Changes in Emotional and Physical Reactions: Living with PTSD can cause some people to be on edge and on guard all of the time. This can make a person easily startled. Someone experiencing reactive symptoms may have trouble sleeping or concentrating. They may also start to participate in unhealthy behaviors such as using alcohol or street drugs to cope.
  • Avoidance: The fear that the trauma causes can make some people with PTSD completely avoid anything at all related to the triggering event. This avoidance can be so severe that people cannot go to work, social events, or anywhere in public.
  • Changes in Thinking and Mood: People with PTSD sometimes have persistent negative thoughts about themselves, others, or the world around them. They may also experience extremely low or negative moods. These symptoms can cause issues with relationships, memory, and daily life.

Patients living with PTSD can have one of these types of symptoms or many. Some triggers are more likely to cause specific types of symptoms. For example, combat veterans may be more likely to be easily startled by a sudden noise or movement.

PTSD and Comorbid Disorders

Sometimes, people live with PTSD and no other coexisting conditions. However, research shows that the vast majority of people with PTSD live with other cooccurring (also known as “comorbid”) mental health disorders. Most commonly, people with PTSD also live with:

The frequent occurrence of coexisting disorders highlights the need for people with PTSD to get high-quality, comprehensive mental health care to help them deal with their current and underlying issues.

Treatment Options for PTSD

Some people with PTSD think that they can never recover because of the trauma they have experienced. LifeStance Health wants you to know that there is hope. Mental health care providers can help you reduce your symptoms of PTSD, improve your mood, and even make a full recovery.

There are several types of treatment options available for people with PTSD. Some treatments may work well for some people and not as well for others. That’s why it’s important to have an experienced team of mental health care providers who can give you more options. It may take some trial and error, and the course of illness is different for every patient with PTSD. But getting treatment is one of the most important steps you can take to lessen the severity and length of your PTSD.

Therapy for PTSD

Psychologists and licensed therapists can help people with PTSD find healthy ways to process the trauma they experienced. These professionals can use several types of counseling to help patients, including:

Medication for PTSD

Most guidelines for the treatment of PTSD in adults recommend that trauma-focused psychotherapy be used first, with medications added as needed. Medication can help provide relief from symptoms such as anxiety or depression that are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental health professional can recommend a variety of medicines including antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

People with PTSD often benefit from taking prescription medications such as:

  • Antidepressants: Such as sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil).
  • Anti-anxiety Medications: Psychiatrists may prescribe long-term anti-anxiety medications or fast-acting medications to stop the anxious symptoms of PTSD.
  • Prazosin: While studies are still being conducted, there is data that shows that this medication helps suppress nightmares in people with PTSD.
  • Medication to Treat Coexisting Disorders: Because so many people with PTSD have coexisting mental health disorders, it is important for psychiatrists to evaluate a patient’s disorders and prescribe all of the medications needed.

Reasons to Seek Treatment

  • Dealing with PTSD now can stop symptoms from getting worse.
  • PTSD affects you, your friends, coworkers, and your loved ones.
  • The symptoms can affect your mental and physical health.
  • Symptoms like anger, irritation, and aggression make life harder.
  • Treatment can help even if your trauma happened a long time ago.
  • If treatment did not help before, it’s worth trying a different treatment.
  • No matter how long ago the trauma happened, it’s never too late to get better.

How to Get Help Now

If you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD we urge you to take the first step by visiting LifeStance Health. We can help you find a mental health provider in your area or someone you can speak to online. Whatever type of therapy you ultimately end up choosing, the most important thing is that you get the treatment you need to get back to the life you deserve.