Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence. Being affected by these types of events is normal; however, if the thoughts or memories of these events start to seriously affect a person long after the event, they could be experiencing PTSD. Signs that someone may be experiencing PTSD include nightmares, uncontrollable memories, persistent fear and severe anxiety.
Signs & Symptoms
Most people experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, and they often have negative feelings and agitation immediately afterward. This response is normal, and often the negative feelings go away over the following several weeks. Such a response is not PTSD.
Symptoms of PTSD typically begin within one month of a traumatic event and can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse and other anxiety disorders. Below are the three main categories of PTSD symptoms.
Unwelcome and distressing thoughts and memories, a common occurrence for people with PTSD, can arise suddenly. They’re especially upsetting if they’re connected to a traumatic event. But that’s not all: PTSD intrusive thoughts can trigger other PTSD symptoms, such as intense arousal, that may make the situation even worse.
These memories can start from the person’s own thoughts or can be triggered by words, objects or situations that are reminders of the traumatic event. Intrusive memories include:
- Recurring, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event;
- Reliving the event as if it were happening again;
- Upsetting dreams about the event;
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions (heart racing, hands sweating) to something that reminds the person of the event.
Avoidance symptoms may cause a person to change their routine, including avoiding things that remind them of the event, along with negative changes in thinking and mood.
- Trying to avoid thinking about the event;
- Avoiding places, objects, activities or people that remind a person of the event;
- Increased negative feelings about self or others;
- Feeling emotionally numb or inability to experience positive or negative emotions;
- Feeling hopeless about the future or strong guilt;
- Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past;
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
These symptoms occur when a person’s body suddenly kicks into high alert as a result of thinking about the trauma. Symptoms include:
- Irritability, feeling tense or “on guard”
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts or aggressive behaviours
- Being on constant guard for danger
- Feelings of overwhelming guilt or shame
- Self-destructive behaviours
- Trouble concentrating or sleeping
- Being easily startled or frightened
What causes PTSD?
PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic event such as physical or sexual abuse, violence, combat, natural disaster, or accident. It is unknown why some people develop PTSD in response to traumatic events, while others do not. The risk of developing PTSD after exposure to a trauma appears to be related to a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
When should you seek help?
If you have PTSD, you may often avoid certain situations or activities because of fear that they’ll trigger unpleasant or uncomfortable PTSD symptoms. Unfortunately, avoiding trigger situations can increase your isolation and put you at risk for depression. It can even increase your avoidance behavior. How? By further reinforcing the idea that you need to avoid those PTSD symptoms.
There are several effective therapies and treatments for PTSD. For more information, see the resources listed below.
- National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. www.ptsd.va.gov
- Canadian Mental Health. www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3-94-97
- Healthy Place.com. www.healthyplace.com
- National Institute of Mental Health. www.nimh.nih.gov
- Anxiety BC – PTSD. www.anxietybc.com/resources/ptsd.php
- PTSD Association of Canada. http://www.ptsdassociation.com/