It is normal to experience short-term responses to any traumatic or life-threatening event, but when symptoms develop over the long-term, this is classified as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
From accidents and assaults to military combat and natural disasters, many traumatic events can induce lasting effects on mental health.
Often, PTSD presents alongside substance use disorder, alcohol use disorder, or other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
A thorough medical evaluation is required for the most effective and personalized treatment plan for PTSD.
According to data from NIH (National Institute on Mental Health), PTSD affects around 9 million people in the United States – 3.6% of the adult population.
Of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the same data shows that 37% manifest severe symptoms.
Women are much more likely to experience PTSD than men.
The more you discover about this complicated and potentially distressing mental health condition, the more readily you can fight back against the symptoms disrupting your life.
What is PTSD?
PTSD (the abbreviated form of post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying or traumatic event. This can be an event you witness or an event you experience directly.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed using the criteria laid out in the APA’s DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and Mental Disorders.
Common symptoms of PTSD – more on those below – include the following:
- Chronic anxiety
- Uncontrollable thoughts about traumatic event
It is commonplace to experience fleeting problems with coping and adjusting after a traumatic event. Usually, time and self-care are enough to see symptoms dissipate. When the symptoms get worse, and when they last for six months or more, though, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Obtaining an accurate diagnosis and seeking appropriate treatment after experiencing PTSD symptoms is vital for reducing symptoms and restoring function.
Before we highlight the most common signs and symptoms of PTSD, a few words about complex PTSD.
Complex PTSD is a new term used to describe a condition where you experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and some additional symptoms, including:
- Problems controlling your emotions
- Feelings of extreme anger or distrust
- Continual feelings of hopelessness or emptiness
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Avoiding friendships and relationships
- Feeling apart from others
- Believing that nobody understands you
- Experiencing dissociative symptoms like depersonalization and derealization
- Physical symptoms (dizziness, headaches, stomach aches, chest pains)
- Frequent suicidal thoughts
Complex PTSD was not included as a separate diagnosis in either DSM-IV or DSM-V, the APA’s benchmark diagnostic tool. The reasoning for this was that DSM-IV field trials indicated that 92% of those with complex PTSD also satisfied the criteria for PTSD. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder was not included in the updated fifth edition of DSM due to a lack of empirical evidence supporting a separate diagnosis.
The following traumatic events often cause complex PTSD:
- Ongoing domestic violence
- Childhood abuse
- Neglect and abandonment in childhood
- Regularly witnessing abuse or violence
- Forced prostitution
- War imprisonment
Evidence-based psychotherapies like CPT (cognitive processing therapy) and PE (prolonged exposure) are proven effective for treating the symptoms of complex PTSD.
The symptoms of PTSD can sometimes present within a month of the traumatic event, but often they do not appear until years later.
Unfortunately, the symptoms can lead to serious problems at home, at work, and in social situations. PTSD symptoms can also interfere with your functioning and your ability to complete your normal daily routine.
Most traumatized people will experience some short-term PTSD symptoms, but most do not develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.
While most cases of PTSD are directly triggered by exposure to trauma, not everyone who experiences a dangerous event will go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many symptoms will present quite early during the three months following the traumatic incident. Sometimes, though, the symptoms only begin years after the event.
For a PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must last for more than one month, and they must be severe enough to disrupt your functioning at home, work, and in your interpersonal relationships. Doctors experienced in helping those with mental illnesses – psychiatrists or psychologists, for instance – can diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder.
You must experience all of the following symptoms over a period of at least one month to satisfy the criteria of PTSD:
- 1 or more one avoidance symptoms
- 1 or more re-experiencing symptoms
- 2 or more cognition and mood symptoms
- 2 or more arousal and reactivity symptoms
The most common avoidance symptoms are as follows:
- Avoiding thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic event
- Staying away from places, events, or things that remind you of the traumatic experience
- Changing your routine to avoid triggers
The most common re-experiencing symptoms are as follows:
- Frightening thoughts
The most common cognition and mood symptoms are as follows:
- Distorted feelings of blame and guilt
- Difficulty remembering key features of the trauma
- Negative thoughts, both self-directed and general
- Loss of interest in favored activities
The most common arousal and reactivity symptoms are as follows:
- Being easily startled
- Problems sleeping
- Experiencing outbursts of anger
- Difficulties with concentration
If the expected symptoms triggered by a traumatic event do not dissipate after a few weeks and they start interfering with your daily living, you should seek a PTSD diagnosis.
What Causes PTSD?
PTSD can occur at any stage of life and is usually but not exclusively associated directly with exposure to trauma. Sometimes, witnessing a loved one exposed to danger can trigger PTSD. In the same way, the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one can also lead to the development of PTSD.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 8 people in 100 are liable to experience PTSD at some point in life. PTSD affects war veterans, children, and victims of abuse, accidents, and disasters.
Fortunately, those adults and children diagnosed with PTSD only account for a small portion of those exposed to trauma.
Overall, women are significantly more likely than men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Beyond this, some people have genes believed to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD.
More research is needed to fully understand what causes PTSD, but the following risk factors are believed to play a role:
- Getting hurt or injured
- Surviving a dangerous or traumatic event
- Witnessing another person get hurt
- Seeing a dead body
- Childhood abuse or trauma
- Lack of social support after the trauma
- Feelings of extreme fear
- External stressors like pain and suffering, job loss, or the death of a loved one
- History of substance abuse
- Co-occurring mental health conditions
Researchers understand that biological instinct in the form of the body’s fight-or-flight response can be beneficial during a crisis, but can also be responsible for ongoing symptoms in the form of PTSD. Some researchers feel that the response that manifests during post-traumatic stress disorder is actually an iteration of the human response to trauma.
Regardless of whether PTSD is considered a condition or a variant of the stress response, the symptoms are a consequence of your body’s inability to regain balance in the months following a traumatic event.
Anything reminding you of what happened just before or during a traumatic event can act as a trigger.
Triggers are typically linked to your senses. You might smell, see, feel, taste, or touch something that brings on PTSD symptoms.
These are some of the most common triggers:
- People related to the traumatic event
- Emotions and thoughts you were experiencing during the trauma
- Seeing objects that remind you of the trauma
- Returning to the scene of the trauma or seeing places similar to the location of the traumatic event
- Seeing similar traumas on the TV or in a movie
- Sensations like pain in specific body parts
- Situations mirroring the trauma – being stuck in an elevator, for instance
- Sounds related to the trauma
- Anniversaries of the event
- Reading or hearing words related to the trauma
- Feeling in danger
The best way to identify your personal triggers for post-traumatic stress disorder is to work closely with a therapist. Once you have established what triggers your symptoms, your therapist will help you to formulate robust coping strategies.
How else can you get PTSD treatment, then?
First-line treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder include medications and psychotherapy. These treatments can be used in isolation or in combination.
Due to the complex nature of PTSD and everyone’s unique situation, not all treatments are effective for all people. You may need to try several types of treatment before your symptoms are relieved. If you are suffering from this debilitating condition, it’s crucial to seek treatment with an experienced mental health provider specializing in the treatment of this condition.
If you are coping with an ongoing trauma – an abusive relationship, substance abuse, or depression, for example – each of these problems needs unpacking and addressing.
If your internet search history is studded with queries like “PTSD therapy near me”, you can expect medication and/or psychotherapy when you engage with a suitable treatment program.
Antidepressants are the most common type of medication used to treat PTSD. These medications can often help to control the following symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder:
- Numbness inside
Your healthcare provider may also prescribe other medications for mitigating symptoms like sleep problems or nightmares.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, involves speaking with a mental health professional either one-on-one or in a group setting.
Most psychotherapy treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder lasts for 6 to 12 weeks. If you require more sessions, this is possible.
There are many types of psychotherapy applicable to the treatment of PTSD. Some therapies directly target symptoms, while other therapies focus on family, social, or job-related problems. Sometimes, a combination of therapies proves effective.
Some research indicates that getting support from friends and family can be helpful for many struggling with PTSD.
The most effective forms of psychotherapy will focus on several core components, including:
- Teaching you the skills to identify what triggers your symptoms
- Educating you about PTSD symptoms
- Helping you to manage your symptoms more efficiently
CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is one of the most common talk therapies used to treat PTSD.
Other forms of PTSD treatment are as follows:
- Cognitive restructuring: You may find you remember events rather differently than how they actually unfolded. You may feel guilt or shame about something beyond your control. With cognitive restructuring, your therapist will help you process these memories to accurately establish what happened.
- Exposure therapy: With this form of treatment, you’ll become gradually exposed to the trauma you experienced in a controlled and safe setting. This can involve visiting the site of the trauma, or it can involve imagining or writing about the trauma. Your therapist will then use these tools to help you cope with the feelings associated with the trauma.
You should be prepared to explore all possible treatment options if you’re engaging with PTSD treatment, and we can help you with that here at TDRC.
Getting Help for PTSD at The District
If you are experiencing ongoing symptoms in the aftermath of a traumatic event, and if these symptoms are hampering your daily living, PTSD treatment starts with an accurate diagnosis.
For anyone experiencing a co-occurring alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, our dual diagnosis treatment programs ensure you can address the symptoms of both conditions simultaneously.
Our outpatient treatment programs for PTSD include more intensive forms of therapy in the form of PHPs (particle hospitalization program) and IOPs (intensive outpatient programs). These are more intensive than regular outpatient programs but not as costly or restrictive as residential rehab.
Through a combination of medication and talk therapy like CBT, you can start enjoying life again without being plagued by memories of trauma. Reach out to The District today at 844-287-8506.