What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health and behavioral disorder that develops in some people after they see or experience a traumatic event. The event may be dangerous, shocking or scary.
Historically, PTSD has been known by many names. Those living in the wake of World War I called it “shell shock,” and World War II veterans were said to suffer from “combat fatigue.” PTSD does not, however, only happen to military veterans. It can occur in people of any age, ethnicity, nationality or culture.
Fear is a natural response in a traumatic situation, as it triggers many necessary processes in the brain and body to help it defend itself from harm. It’s common for people to experience a range of emotions in the initial aftermath of trauma. However, most people recover from these initial symptoms naturally.
Those who continue to experience these effects, such as feeling stressed or frightened even when not in danger, may be diagnosed with PTSD.
PTSD Causes & Risk Factors
While PTSD can affect anyone, some groups see higher rates of symptoms than others. For example, PTSD is more than twice as likely to be found in women than men. One explanation for this is the fact that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, abuse, and rape.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Since each person’s life has formed them with unique capabilities of managing stress, fear, and threats, it's impossible to predict whether a person will develop PTSD. Even experiencing trauma does not make PTSD inevitable.
Additionally, a person’s support system in the form of friend and family relationships, and any professional care they receive following trauma, can have a significant impact in how they handle processing the experience. Those with healthy relationships and community support are likely to experience either significantly less severe PTSD symptoms, or none at all.
It's impossible to predict whether a person will develop PTSD. Even experiencing trauma does not make PTSD inevitable.
Factors that cause some to be more likely to develop PTSD include:
- Having a history of mental health problems
- Being exposed to life-threatening situations repeatedly
- A history of drug or alcohol abuse
While age doesn’t factor into one’s ability to develop PTSD, People who experienced abuse at an early age are also at higher risk for developing PTSD.
Signs & Symptoms
A mental illness-specializing doctor, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, might diagnose a person with PTSD if they exhibit all of the following for at least one month:
- At least one re-experiencing symptom (such as flashbacks or frightening dreams or thoughts)
- At least one avoidance symptom (such as staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience)
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (such as angry outbursts, sleeping difficulty, being easily startled, or feeling “on edge”)
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms (such as memory trouble related to the event or experience, negative self-concept, guilt, blame, or loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities)
There is no defining timeline for when PTSD symptoms can develop—or how long they’ll last. Some people experience PTSD symptoms for a relatively short period of time, while others deal with the effects for years. The second type is known as chronic PTSD.
There is no defining timeline for when PTSD symptoms can develop—or how long they’ll last.
Other common symptoms might include:
- Intrusive thoughts
- Trouble concentrating
It’s common for symptoms to first appear within three months of a traumatic experience, however, some symptoms don’t show until years later.
PTSD in Children
PTSD symptoms in young children can look different than in adults. For example children under six might show signs such as:
- Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
- Acting out the event
- Being unusually clingy with family members or a another grown-up
Older children and teens tend to display symptoms that mirror those in adults. Some common PTSD symptoms in this age group include:
- Developing disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors
- Expressing feelings of guilt for not preventing the event
- Thoughts of revenge
The treatment options for children are similar to adults with the exception that, because their brains are still in development, medication-based treatments are generally avoided except for in severe cases.
PTSD Treatments & Therapies
Some people are able to naturally settle back into regular rhythms of life after trauma with little daily disruption. For others, however, chronic mental and/or physical side effects interfere with their ability to function normally.
Those in the second group should seek help in navigating how to manage PTSD symptoms. The most common approach is a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
To date, no single medication has been found to treat all symptoms of PTSD. When looking into options for dealing with PTSD symptoms, be sure to research potential prescription side effects. You should also make your doctor aware of the presence of any additional mental health struggles, such as depression or anxiety, so they can anticipate how the prescription might affect these.
Antidepressants, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often the first line of treatment prescribed to help reduce symptoms of PTSD. While these aren’t the only types of medications available for treating PTSD symptoms, they are some of the most researched and documented. Ask your doctor for more information about all medication options available.
Most medications help with some symptoms of PTSD, but cannot heal the psychological effects of trauma. This is why many people combine medicated assistance with psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy, sometimes referred to as “talk therapy,” involves processing traumatic experiences by talking about them. This might be 1-on-1 with a counselor, or in a group setting with a trauma therapist present.
Some types of psychotherapy have been found to be more effective for PTSD than others. Most of these are conducted in a 1-on-1 setting, with a specializing therapy practitioner:
- CBT: this type of therapy is often chosen first in treating children. It specifically targets symptoms like negative thinking and self-blame that may come with having PTSD.
- Somatic Experiencing: specifically designed to treat trauma, this therapy guides an individual through healing trauma by refocusing physical reactions to remembered trauma
- Prolonged exposure therapy (PET): PET is a type of psychotherapy where the client faces whatever they find traumatizing in order to learn to cope effectively. This goes beyond just reliving the event, as the counselor walks them through memories and “triggers” safely so they learn to gain control over their fear.
PTSD Treatment Alternatives & Support
Whether as complements or alternatives to medication and psychotherapy, many people combine any of the following practices to promote holistic health in the brain and body, following trauma:
- Chinese herbal medicines
- Deep-breathing exercises
- Mind-body therapy
- Tai Chi
Service animals, such as dogs, are also a common help people opt for when choosing methods for PTSD support.
Similar to the fact that certain influences increase one’s risk for developing PTSD, there are other factors that can decrease it. For example, life skills that promote resilience include:
- Learning to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
- Having a positive coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
- Being able to act and respond effectively, despite feeling fear
A person who seeks out support from friends and family, or finds a trauma-focused support group following the event, is less likely to develop severe PTSD symptoms.
Finding Help for PTSD Today
Here at Sequoia, we understand that trauma is an underlying factor in many mental and behavioral health disorders. We also know that if it is not recognized and resolved, treating its symptoms will not make a lasting difference.
That is why your treatment is personalized through-and-through. In combination with traditional talk therapy, our therapists administer a number of evidence-based interventions. One of our clinically-trained therapists will work directly with you on a daily basis to develop the right treatment protocol for you.
Reach out to us, and discover how our trauma-based treatment approach can help you find healing from symptoms of PTSD today.