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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. The event may involve a real or perceived threat of injury or death. This can include a natural disaster, combat, an assault, physical or sexual abuse, or other trauma.
People with PTSD have a heightened sense of danger. Their natural fight-or-flight response is damaged, causing them to feel stressed or fearful, even in safe situations.
Once called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue," PTSD has received public attention recently because of the high number of war veterans with the disorder. But PTSD can happen to anyone at any age. It occurs as a response to chemical changes in the brain after exposure to threatening events. PTSD is not the result of a character flaw or weakness.
Symptoms of PTSD can disrupt your normal activities and your ability to function. Symptoms can be triggered by words, sounds, or situations that remind you of trauma. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms fall into the following groups:
In addition, people with PTSD may experience depression and panic attacks. Panic attacks can cause:
There is no specific test to diagnose PTSD. The condition can be difficult to diagnose because people with the disorder may be reluctant to recall or discuss the trauma or their symptoms. A mental health specialist is best qualified to diagnose PTSD. These specialists include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners.
Diagnosis of PTSD requires experiencing all of the following for one month or longer:
Your symptoms must be serious enough to interfere with daily activities. These activities include going to work or school, or being around friends and family members.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD, remember that you’re not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 8 million adults have PTSD in a given year.
If you have frequent upsetting thoughts, are unable to control your actions, or fear that you might hurt yourself or others, seek help right away.
If you are diagnosed with PTSD, your doctor will likely prescribe a combination of therapies, including:
Many people who suffer from PTSD turn to illicit drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms. While these methods may temporarily alleviate your symptoms of PTSD, they don’t treat the underlying cause of stress. They can even make some symptoms worse. If you have trouble with substance abuse, your therapist may also recommend a 12-step program to reduce your dependency on drugs or alcohol.
Psychotherapy is an important tool to help you cope with PTSD symptoms. It can help you identify symptom triggers, manage your symptoms, and face your fears. Support from friends and family is helpful too.
Learning about PTSD will help you understand your feelings and how to effectively deal with them. Living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself will also help with your PTSD. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet, get enough rest and exercise, and avoid anything that can make stress or anxiety worse.
There are support groups for PTSD all over the country and most likely in your area. You can find one with a quick Internet search, or by using one of the following resources:
If you have PTSD, early treatment can help alleviate your symptoms. It can also give you effective strategies for coping with intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks. Through therapy, support groups, and medication, you can get on the road to recovery. Always keep in mind that you’re not alone.
Written by: Maureen Donohue
Medically reviewed on: Mar 23, 2016: Tim Legg PhD, PMHNP-BC, GNP-BC, CARN-AP, MCHES
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