It’s normal to feel fear and anxiety during and after a traumatic event. Split-second changes occur in the body—tensed muscles, rapid heartbeat, increased respiration, and a surge of hormones such as cortisol—to help defend against danger or avoid it. These physiological changes, sometimes called the "fight-or-flight" response, are normal and typically dissipate on their own with time once the real danger is no longer present.
But some people who’ve experienced traumatic events find it difficult or impossible to recover from these symptoms—and may not even experience them until months or even years after the events that caused them. These people have what’s known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a name mental-health professionals use to describe the situation in which the mental and physical stress response persists when the threat is no longer present in the same way. This response can be experienced in many ways. What people with PTSD have in common is that they have all gone through or witnessed a shocking, scary, or dangerous event—one in which they perceived a threat to their or another person's survival.
PTSD can affect people who have been in a war(indeed, it’s a relatively new term for what was formerly known as “shell shock,” the disabling anxiety disorder first noticed among soldiers who had been through battlefield horrors) or who have family members who have been injured or killed in a war. Soldiers who've experienced no combat can also develop PTSD. People who have witnessed or been victims of physical or sexual assault are at risk for PTSD, as are people who have experienced or witnessed a traffic accident or seen a loved one die suddenly.
Though it’s not a new problem, PTSD has increasingly become a part of the public vernacular since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and through the ongoing wars and increasing reports of mass shootings, killer storms, and other disasters that have followed. Decreasing stigma around mental illness may also play a role. Whatever the reasons, it seems that more and more of us, or people we know, have a personal experience with PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD
Symptoms of PTSD can include intense feelings of helplessness, anger, denial coupled with numbness, grief, and possibly hatred and mistrust of everyone. Insomnia is common, along with bad dreams and nightmares. Survivor guilt (“why didn’t I get killed, too?”) may torment people. Many relive their experiences in flashbacks and dreams. A few think of suicide.
Specific symptoms experienced or exhibited by people with PTSD may include:
- Re-experiencing events they can’t seem to escape
- Withdrawing from places or events that remind them of their experience, or shutting themselves off from contact with others because of fear or anxiety
- Experiencing worsening depression or feelings of guilt or anxiety.
- Becoming angry, edgy, or easily startled, often without knowing why
- Developing negative thoughts about themselves or about the world around them
Getting help for PTSD
As with other mental disorders, there are multiple treatments for PTSD which may include some or all of the following. Medications such as antidepressants and drugs that partially inhibit adrenaline can help relieve incapacitating symptoms. Individual or group psychotherapy (“talk therapy”) can help the person to deal with situations that trigger their symptoms or learn to avoid them. Cognitive and behavioral therapies such as exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring can help change how people think about their experience. Training in mindfulness and anger control skills can help with coping, as can support from family and friends. Exercise and relaxation can help reduce stress.
The same treatment that works for one person may not work for another. But working with a mental health professional who understands PTSD can result in a tailored treatment plan that can provide relief and even recovery. One of the best ways to start is by talking with your own doctor about the feelings you have or what is happening with a loved one who may be experiencing PTSD symptoms. Your doctor can help you find a professional who can treat PTSD and help you take back your life.
You can find out more about PTSD and learn about your symptoms and the options you have for dealing with them by visiting the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website, the NIH’s page on PTSD, or the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for PTSD.
Also see How to Get Mental Health Help.