With our country’s recent military conflicts, the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has gained attention because it affects so many of our soldiers (up to 20 percent). Yet this condition can strike anyone—not just those who have been to war.
PTSD is a reaction to trauma. Trauma is a Greek word that means “wound.” Just as we are all susceptible to physical wounds, we can experience emotional wounds too. Within the context of PTSD, a trauma is any event that prompts the feeling of your life being endangered or witnessing such an incident happen to someone else. Traumas include unnatural experiences like rape, assault, accidents and homicide, or natural events like earthquakes or hurricanes or a sudden health threat like a heart attack.
PTSD is common: Recent estimates indicate that more than eight percent of the US population experience it at some point. Typically, the disorder involves four inter-related symptoms that affect daily life:
- Intrusive, involuntary memories of the trauma, flashbacks or reactions to reminders of the event.
- Avoiding people and places that remind you of the trauma.
- Negative changes in thoughts, mood or memory (like not recalling important details of the event); self-blame (“It was my fault for walking down that street”); believing the world to be completely dangerous; lingering unpleasant feelings like sorrow or anger; and isolation from others.
- Changes in the level of emotional arousal such as irritability, poor sleep and hypervigilance (always being on guard).
The disorder will affect most who survive rape or war, but a traumatic experience does not guarantee developing PTSD. After a traumatic event, many experience initial symptoms that mimic PTSD, but then resolve those symptoms within a month. Others who develop the disorder may recover over a few months.
Clinicians sometimes call PTSD a “disorder of recovery” because something in the recovery process gets “stuck.” So PTSD treatment focuses on helping the process to become “unstuck.”
Help and Hope
There are successful treatments for PTSD. Medication can ease symptoms, but psychotherapy provides the biggest improvements. These sessions usually assist recovery by helping to process the trauma safely. And since PTSD significantly affects interpersonal connections, it can help to participate in treatment that focuses on relationships or includes significant others. This can involve bringing a significant other into a few therapy sessions or engaging in couple’s or family therapy.