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December 11, 2020
While trauma doesn’t always directly lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is beneficial for those who have witnessed or experienced trauma—as well as their loved ones—to know the signs and symptoms of PTSD, ways to treat it, and how to seek help.
Trauma can vary in severity and impact—in fact, approximately one in three people who experience severe trauma also experience PTSD.
Despite its more common association with soldiers returning from combat situations and the horrors of war, PTSD is a condition that can apply to anyone who has witnessed or experienced traumatic, life-threatening, or life-changing events.
According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD is a common condition affecting 10% of women and 4% of men at some point in their lives.
PTSD is a condition that affects people of all ages. No one is immune to trauma or how it affects the human brain. Depending on the person, PTSD may mean something different but be equally as impactful.
The experience of post-traumatic stress can vary depending on the trauma that the individual went through—even symptoms can vary between two people. In some cases, symptoms can appear nearly instantaneously. For others, it can take decades for symptoms to surface and be recognized. For many, there’s a delayed onset of symptoms, when the brain is no longer as preoccupied or the person has the opportunity to absorb what has happened.
There is no definitive answer to why some people who experience trauma develop PTSD and others do not. A combination of elements may cause the disorder or make individuals more susceptible to post-traumatic stress, such as:
Randall talks about his past and present in this emotional episode of McLean’s podcast, “Mindful Things”
You don’t have to experience a specific trauma to develop PTSD. Many people associate this disorder with military veterans. While PTSD is common in military populations, simply witnessing an event, like a car accident, can trigger PTSD symptoms.
In these cases, painful, traumatic memories can appear out of nowhere, creating intense physical and emotional reactions. During World War I, this was referred to as “shell shock.” When the horrors of war were too much for the brain to manage, the brain, or at least part of the brain, simply shut off.
Children and teens often experience PTSD as a result of traumas that impact them, such as school shootings, domestic violence, auto accidents, neglect, or abuse. Between 15-43% of adolescents will experience a traumatic event, with about a quarter of those individuals experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
With any traumatic event, it is completely normal to feel impacted. However, PTSD symptoms may interfere with the person’s ability to function in their normal settings or environment.
While there are many symptoms of PTSD, they are often dismissed as something other than post-traumatic stress disorder. If symptoms escalate over time, interfere with the ability to go about day-to-day activities, or don’t diminish with time, it may be worth talking to someone about the possibility of a PTSD diagnosis.
When considering if you or a loved one are living with PTSD, it’s important to remember that the onset of symptoms can show at any time, not just immediately after experiencing trauma. Many people have reported symptoms appearing decades after being exposed to trauma.
While military members are common among PTSD patients, women are two times more likely than men to experience PTSD, and it is often the result of trauma like domestic violence, physical abuse, or rape.
While some people are predisposed to post-traumatic stress disorder, it can impact anyone. As PTSD has many symptoms, it’s important to remember that someone may only express one of the following symptoms—or all of them.
Each affected person will have a unique experience with PTSD and may experience any of the following:
When memories seem to turn against us, it can be traumatic in its own right, especially when they are memories we’re trying to forget. These unwanted and intrusive memories may look like the following symptoms:
Avoidance is a common reaction to trauma but can become problematic if it’s the main method of coping, as it can interfere with your ability to heal after trauma. These are some of the symptoms of avoidance:
It is normal for people who have experienced trauma to be upset or on edge on the anniversary of an event. It is when these reactions are severe or extreme that it indicates a deeper potential problem, such as PTSD.
Sometimes referred to as arousal symptoms, these symptoms emerge in reaction to the trauma and include things like:
Sometimes these are accompanied by self-destructive behaviors, such as drinking, using drugs, sexual promiscuity, or engaging in dangerous activities like skydiving, driving at excessive speed, and pursuing other dangerous activities.
If you’re experiencing the following symptoms, you should reach out to someone you trust.
PTSD symptoms may come and go over time. Seeking treatment can help you recognize certain triggers so that you can manage the emotions they bring about if you can’t avoid these triggers.
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There are several steps involved in fully diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder, including a physical and psychological evaluation in addition to meeting the criteria in DSM-5 (the standard for psychiatric diagnosis). Some of the criteria established in the DSM-5 include one or more of the following factors:
Also, symptoms of PTSD have to affect you longer than one month and interfere with your ability to cope and/or function in normal activities or relationships, for a formal diagnosis to be considered.
The sooner you seek treatment, the faster you can begin to feel relief and not be burdened by the symptoms of your trauma. Most people with PTSD require some combination of medication and mental health therapies to develop appropriate coping skills and to learn how to better care for themselves.
Psychological therapies prescribed for PTSD treatment may include cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, talk therapy, or some combination of the three. They are most successful when used in combination with medications such as antidepressants and medications that promote dreamless sleep to address nightmares and boost the healing of the mind and body that occurs while sleeping.
While there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for those living with PTSD, many treatments have been successful in helping people live with fewer symptoms—allowing them to live healthier, happier lives.
Many people who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder also struggle with suicidal thoughts and/or behaviors.
Although it is not possible to predict suicide with any certainty, our best tool is recognition of the signs that many people exhibit when contemplating suicide. The following three behaviors should prompt you to seek immediate help for yourself or a loved one:
Please seek help immediately if you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you or someone you know needs help:
If you are overwhelmed by symptoms or negative thoughts that you suspect are related to PTSD, you should contact your health care team to discuss the possibility of a PTSD diagnosis. You can also contact a local mental health facility, like McLean, to get the help you need. You don’t have to struggle on your own—there is a path to recovery.
If you recognize the symptoms in a friend or loved one, you should always reach out to them and offer support. Whether they accept your help or not, knowing that you’ve offered can be incredibly helpful to those who are affected by mental illness.
Looking for even more information about PTSD? You may find these resources helpful.
These organizations may also have useful information and community supports:
National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
A part of the VA that works to advance the clinical care and social welfare of America’s veterans through research, education, and training in the science, diagnosis, and treatment of PTSD and stress-related disorders. Its website is provided as an educational resource concerning PTSD and other enduring consequences of traumatic stress.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you are suicidal, please call 800.273.TALK(8255). You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area. Counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A nondenominational, not-for-profit volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the incidence of suicide by befriending individuals in crisis and educating the community about effective prevention strategies. Call or text the 24/7 free and confidential helpline at 877.870.4673.
This program provides readjustment counseling, outreach, and referral services to veterans and their families in a relaxed, community-based setting. Vet Centers also provide counseling for military sexual trauma and bereavement counseling to parents, siblings, and spouses of service members who die in service. Many staff members are combat veterans themselves. Almost all combat veterans are eligible for Vet Center services.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)
The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN started and currently runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) in partnership with over 1,100 local rape crisis centers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help victims, and ensure that rapists are brought to justice.
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
Dedicated to sharing information about the effects of trauma and the discovery and dissemination of knowledge about policy, program, and service initiatives that seek to reduce traumatic stressors and their immediate and long-term consequences. Providing access to education and research, meetings and events, as well as tools for treating trauma and public resources.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
NCTSN brings a singular and comprehensive focus to childhood trauma. A collaboration of frontline providers, researchers, and families committed to raising the standard of care while increasing access to services.
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