Post-traumatic stress disorder or simply PTSD, is a mental health condition that is classified as an anxiety disorder and usually develops as a result of a terribly frightening, life-threatening or otherwise highly unsafe experience, by either experiencing it or witnessing it. Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while. If the symptoms get worse or if they last for months or even years and thus, interfere with the functioning, a person may have PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within three months of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. The following groups of symptom criteria are required to assign the diagnosis of PTSD:
- Recurrent re-experiencing of the experience (troublesome memories, flashbacks, nightmares);
- Avoidance to the point of having a phobia of places, people and experiences that remind the sufferer of the event;
- Negative changes in thinking, having trouble remembering important aspects of the experience, having exquisitely sensitive to normal life experiences, holding negative beliefs, a tendency to blame oneself for the experience, a persistently negative emotional state, low interest or participation in significant activities and feeling detached from others;
- Significant changes in arousal and reactivity related to the traumatic event, including sleep problems, trouble concentrating, irritability, anger, poor concentration, blackouts or difficulty remembering things, self-destructive behavior and excessive watchfulness to threat.
Virtually any experience, defined as an event that is life-threatening or that severely compromises the physical or emotional well-being of an individual or causes intense fear, may cause PTSD. As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:
- Inherited mental health risks;
- Life experiences;
- Inherited aspects of the personality;
- The way the brain regulates the chemicals and hormones the body releases in response to stress.
People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make someone more likely to develop it after a traumatic event, such as:
- Having experienced intense experience earlier in life, including childhood abuse, neglect or sexual/physical assault;
- Having a job that increases the risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders;
- Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression;
- Lacking a good support system of family and friends;
- Having biological relatives with mental health problems.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt the whole life: the job, the relationships, the health and the enjoyment of everyday activities. Having PTSD also may increase the risk of other mental health problems, such as: depression and anxiety; issues with drugs or alcohol abuse; eating disorders; suicidal thoughts and actions.
Getting timely help may prevent normal stress reactions from developing PTSD. This means turning to family and friends who will listen and offer comfort; seeking out a mental health provider for a brief course of therapy; etc.
There are also some medicines which treat depression, decrease the heart rate or increase the action of other body chemicals that are thought to be effective tools in the prevention of PTSD when given in the days immediately after an individual experiences a traumatic event.