Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe psychological response to a traumatic event. Those suffering from this condition experience disturbing thoughts and feelings about their trauma long after it has passed. A common condition affecting nearly 7% of adults, PTSD can interfere with a person’s daily functioning at work and home.
What Causes PTSD?
Even though PTSD is often associated with wartime violence it can be brought on by any experience a person finds traumatic. Usually, this is a severe trauma like an assault or chronic childhood abuse. What may be surprising is that you don’t have to be a direct victim of trauma to develop PTSD. Viewing or hearing about a trauma can be enough to initiate symptoms. For example, a first responder could develop PTSD after responding to a severe accident scene.
Symptoms of PTSD
To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must experience significant distress for at least a month. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V), the symptoms of PTSD fall into several categories:
As discussed, an individual needs to be exposed to a traumatic event, either directly or indirectly. This can take the form of viewing it, hearing about it or having it personally happen to you.
This category refers to how someone re-experiences the trauma, which intrudes on daily thinking. Intrusion can be through nightmares, flashbacks, or sensory and internal cues. For example, maybe you smell food that reminds you of Iraq, where you witnessed multiple deaths during wartime.
People with PTSD want to avoid objects, people, and situations that remind them of the traumatic event(s). Someone may, for instance, avoid an object that was used to abuse them as a child.
Negative Thoughts and Mood
An individual with PTSD often experiences distorted thoughts related to the trauma. For instance, they may have a belief that driving is more dangerous than it is after experiencing a serious car accident. Additionally, their mood may become chronically negative to the point that they have difficulty expressing any positive emotion.
Arousal and Reactivity
This category refers to levels of arousal and behavioral reactions that occur in response to experiencing a trauma. Some examples include an inability to sleep, reckless behavior, and increased irritability.
PTSD Treatment Options
Not everyone that experiences PTSD requires treatment, as symptoms can pass on their own. However, those that are unable to function in daily life should seek help. There are numerous ways people treat PTSD, including alternative therapies such as trauma-sensitive yoga and ketamine infusions. The following are more common treatments for PTSD:
Therapy is the an obvious first step in learning how to cope with symptoms of PTSD and navigating through the complex emotions. There a several popular approaches that have proven effective, including:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT focuses on changing maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that lead to negative feelings. For PTSD, techniques like exposure are used to help clients confront their trauma and learn to cope more effectively.
Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
An offshoot of cognitive behavioral therapy, CPT emphasizes changing distorted thinking patterns that keep people “stuck” in negative emotional states. Through CPT, the individual learns to reframe the traumatic event in a way that reduces its negative consequences.
Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDR)
Although EMDR remains somewhat controversial, it has become an accepted therapy in the treatment of PTSD. A therapist will use a combination of sensory movements (usually eye movements) and confronting trauma to help alleviate emotional pain.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are often used to treat anxiety and depressive symptoms related to PTSD. Sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are the only FDA approved drugs used to treat the disorder. They have been shown to help control symptoms and provide relief, paving the way for patients for get more engaged in their therapy sessions.
PTSD, although potentially damaging, is a very treatable disorder. Both psychotherapy and medication can be used to significantly reduce their symptoms. If you are having difficulty coping with a traumatic event, it is important to seek help before symptoms worsen.
- The National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). NIMH. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd
- Alexander W. (2012). Pharmacotherapy for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder In Combat Veterans: Focus on Antidepressants and Atypical Antipsychotic Agents. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management, 37(1), 32–38.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). PTSD Treatment Basics. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/tx_basics.asp
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
- Landin-Romero, R., Moreno-Alcazar, A., Pagani, M., & Amann, B. L. (2018). How Does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy Work? A Systematic Review on Suggested Mechanisms of Action. Frontiers in Psychology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01395
- Sareen, J. (2014). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Adults: Impact, Comorbidity, Risk Factors, and Treatment. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 59(9), 460–467. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674371405900902