Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD, is a mental health condition that develops after an individual either witnesses or experiences a terrifying event. While PTSD is often associated with war veterans, it can occur in anyone who has experienced trauma. Common triggers of PTSD include not only combat, but also childhood neglect or abuse, sexual or physical assault, or a situation in which use of a weapon was threatened. Read on to learn more about PTSD’s definition, the associated symptoms, and how this condition is treated.
PTSD symptoms are categorized into four groups: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional reactions. Intrusive memories include flashbacks, in which you feel like you are reliving the event, as well as upsetting dreams. Avoidance includes steering clear of all people, places, and objects that remind you of the traumatic event. Negative changes in thinking and mood may include a feeling of numbness, hopelessness, or lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Emotional reactions may include irritability, aggressive or self destructive behavior, trouble concentrating and sleeping, and becoming easily startled. While many symptoms show up within three months of the event, other people are not affected by PTSD until years after the trauma.
While there is no specific PTSD test, the doctor will evaluate your symptoms based on the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In general, diagnosis requires that you were exposed to a traumatic event, that you are experiencing either flashbacks, upsetting dreams, or ongoing emotional distress, and that for more than a month after the event, you are unable to remember the details, avoid reminders, feel detached or a heightened awareness of danger, are emotionally numb, or engage in destructive behavior.
Most people who are diagnosed with PTSD are treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Helpful types of therapy may included cognitive therapy, in which you talk about the event and your feelings surrounding it; exposure therapy, in which you face reminders of the event to learn to cope with it effectively; or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, a series of guided eye movements that can help the brain process traumatic events.
Effective PTSD medication may include the SSRI antidepressants sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil); anti-anxiety medications, which can relieve your symptoms in the short term but are not meant for long term use because of the potential for abuse; and prazosin, which can help relieve insomnia and/or recurring nightmares associated with the event.
If you have had disturbing thoughts about a traumatic event for more than a month, or if these thoughts and feelings are affecting your quality of live, see a mental health professional for an evaluation.