Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that affects 7.7 million American adults. The disorder usually develops after being exposed to a terrifying event that had the potential for or actually caused harm to an individual, but it can also be triggered by the sudden death of a loved one or a traumatic event experienced by a friend or family member.
Although PTSD is commonly associated with members of the military who have been exposed to combat, it can affect anyone who has experienced traumatic events such as sexual assault, abuse, accidents, exposure to violent events or natural disasters. People who suffer from PTSD experience persistent frightening thoughts and memories of the traumatic event even when they are no longer in danger.
The main symptoms adults with PTSD show are:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
- Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
- Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
Young children can also experience PTSD, but their symptoms present differently. Parents should watch out for:
- Bedwetting, when they’d learned how to use the toilet before
- Forgetting how or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult
Older children and teens usually have symptoms more like adults.
Diagnosis and Treatment
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, a diagnosis of PTSD is made when a person experiences at least one re-experiencing symptom, at least three avoidance symptoms and at least two hyperarousal symptoms for one month. PTSD often co-occurs with depression, other anxiety disorders, and/or substance abuse.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, treatment consists of psychotherapy and/or medication. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that can help alleviate symptoms. Elements of CBT include:
- Exposure therapy: This therapy helps people face and control their fear. It exposes them to the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses mental imagery, writing, or visits to the place where the event happened. The therapist uses these tools to help people with PTSD cope with their feelings.
- Cognitive restructuring: This therapy helps people make sense of the bad memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it happened. They may feel guilt or shame about what is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way.
- Stress inoculation training: This therapy tries to reduce PTSD symptoms by teaching a person how to reduce anxiety. Like cognitive restructuring, this treatment helps people look at their memories in a healthy way.
If you think you might meet the diagnosis criteria for PTSD, it’s important to get evaluated by a qualified mental health professional. To find a psychologist or psychiatrist in your area, ask your primary care physician for a referral.
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