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Understanding PTSD: Symptoms, Causes, and Support Options

Posted on Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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by AMAC, D.J. Wilson
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June is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) awareness month. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) remain dedicated to educating the public on PTSD. Together, they support research for the development of identifying tools for PTSD. They also seek to improve recognition of PTSD and offer prevention interventions and treatments. Let’s learn more.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is the acronym for posttraumatic stress disorder, a mental and behavioral health problem that develops from experiencing trauma. This debilitating condition occurs after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening account. PTSD often affects members of the military due to the dangerous nature of training and combat. The disorder was initially recognized and associated with wartime experiences. Per WebMD, “PTSD was first brought to the attention of the medical community by war veterans; hence the names shell shock and battle fatigue syndrome.” However, PTSD is not exclusive to the military.

Effects of trauma

Folks exposed to disturbing events including war, violent crime, and natural disasters face elevated risks of developing PTSD. Likewise, people who suffer physical or mental abuse or experience life-changing events like a serious traffic accident, a house fire, divorce, unemployment, or death of a loved one also risk developing posttraumatic stress disorder. Women have higher rates of PTSD than men, possibly linked to increased cases of domestic violence, abuse, and rape. PTSD can affect anyone, including children, thus it has no boundaries. WebMD shares the following statistics: About 3.6% of adult Americans (about 5.2 million people) have PTSD during the course of a year. Additionally, an estimated 7.8 million Americans will develop PTSD at some point in their lives. Thus, PTSD is far reaching.

PTSD and the brain

Most people will experience some level of trauma in their lifetime. Frequently, stress experienced decreases over time and subsides naturally. So, not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to get PTSD. However, when stress due to trauma is prolonged or persistent, or negatively affects one’s ability to function well, PTSD must be considered. Symptoms from trauma can be intense. In cases of PTSD, trauma is believed to overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope with extreme circumstances.

PTSD as a medical disorder

Let’s be clear. PTSD is a medical disorder, NOT a sign of weakness. Just like any other health condition, it requires medical intervention for resolution. PTSD usually doesn’t go away on its own. However, with proper diagnosis and treatment, people can live healthfully. For those experiencing PTSD, understand that help and hope exist, and recovery is achievable.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD presents itself uniquely in individuals, as people who are exposed to trauma react to events in different ways. Here are some possible symptoms:

  • Anxiety/feeling on edge
  • Avoidance coping
  • Depression
  • Emotional instability
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled
  • Flashbacks of the trauma
  • Guilt or sadness
  • Heart rate variability
  • Insomnia/sleep disorders
  • Loss of interest
  • Negative thoughts/feelings
  • Nightmares
  • Poor concentration/memory loss

PTSD timing

PTSD may present itself immediately in some individuals who have experienced a disturbing event, or it may develop over time. In some cases, PTSD can occur months or years later. However, according to the National Health Service, the publicly funded healthcare system in the UK, PTSD usually develops about one month after a traumatic event. Additionally, symptoms of PTSD may be lasting or come and go.

PTSD triggers

PTSD triggers are things that ignite PTSD symptoms. It can be as simple as a sound, a smell, a sight, or thought that is a reminder of the trauma. WebMD explains, “With PTSD, your brain doesn’t process the trauma the right way. It doesn’t file the memory of the event as being in the past. The result: You feel stressed and frightened even when you know you’re safe. The brain attaches details, like sights or smells, to that memory.” This can result in the continuation of severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, and uncontrolled negative thoughts if left untreated.

PTSD in military veterans

Military veterans, particularly those involved in war-related services, risk experiencing PTSD symptoms. Studies of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans showed that as many as 30 percent developed PTSD, per HelpGuide.org. Studies also showed that the more tours they made, the more likely it was for them to have PTSD. It’s shared that the nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events: Mobilization (fight-or-flight) or Immobilization. Mobilization occurs when one needs to defend themselves or survive the danger of combat. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, and strength, focus and reaction speeds increase. The body goes back to normal once the danger has passed. Immobilization occurs when a person undergoes stress and the nervous system is unable to return to normal, even when danger has passed. HelpGuide.org expounds, “Recovering from PTSD involves transitioning out of the mental and emotional war zone you’re still living in and helping your nervous system become “unstuck.” Reliving or replaying nightmarish scenes in one’s head can be a scary experience in which medical intervention is essential.

Getting tested

It is poorly understood why some war veterans who have been through trauma experience PTSD, while others in similar situations don’t. Despite gaps in understanding, recognition of PTSD can lead to medical intervention and treatment. Per Healthline, “You can get tested for PTSD, but tests can’t directly diagnose PTSD. Tests are only there to aid in the diagnostic process.” Visiting a primary care doctor is the first step toward wellness. Evaluations involve a medical examination with brief questionnaires/screenings to determine trauma exposure. Currently, the main treatments for PTSD include therapies and/or medications. While there is no sudden “cure” for PTSD, there can be a reduction or elimination of symptoms with treatment. This enables people with the disorder to heal and live productively and successfully.

PTSD & suicide

Per U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, research indicates a correlation between many types of traumas and suicidal behaviors. Studies pertaining to the importance of combat exposure in Veterans suggest that the intensity of combat trauma and the number of times it occurred may influence suicide risk. However, the study did not take the diagnosis of PTSD into consideration. Various other studies demonstrate relationships between PTSD and suicide, though it’s challenging to know whether other mental health states like depression are contributing factors.

Vital suicide resources

For confidential 24/7 support, reach out to via the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Call 988, text 988, chat, or visit the official website featuring crisis resources and assistance for those seeking intervention for a loved one. For the Veterans crisis line, dial 988 and then 1 after being connected.

Why studies matter

This month of PTSD recognition is dedicated to increasing knowledge and awareness so that people in need can get the help they deserve. One of the biggest and most common hurdles is the initial call to a mental health professional. Nonetheless, this first step is essential as it sets people on the path to wellness.

For more information on PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov

This article is purely informational and is not intended as a medical resource or substitute for professional medical advice. If you believe you are experiencing PTSD, or need help, contact your physician.

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