Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.
Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month 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. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Feeling emotionally numb
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
- Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
- Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event
Intensity of symptoms
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you’re stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of what you went through. For example, you may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences. Or you may see a report on the news about a sexual assault and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.
When to see a doctor
If you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
If you have suicidal thoughts
If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, get help right away through one or more of these resources:
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, a spiritual leader or someone in your faith community.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
- Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional.
When to get emergency help
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
If you know someone who’s in danger of attempting suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person to keep him or her safe. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.
One of the few mental illnesses triggered by an outside, traumatizing event, you can suffer from PTSD by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. What is considered traumatic? Certain traumatic events can be so severely frightening and overwhelming to individuals that they can cause temporary and sometimes permanent changes to how we physically and psychologically respond to stress in our lives. You may find yourself wondering what types of trauma can cause these changes to our physical and psychological responses. Any unexpected violation to our physical and mental well-being can be considered a trauma. Some of the most common traumatic events that may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Natural disasters (e.g., tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes)
- Terrorist attacks
- Car or plane crashes
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will suffer from PTSD. As mentioned above, it’s normal to have nightmares, be fearful, and find difficulty “forgetting” what happened. When you get stuck in a state of fear and shock and your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, post-traumatic stress disorder is likely settling in because your body is having problems restoring itself to equilibrium.
Treatment Options for Sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Several types of treatment options are available if you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The most often prescribed method of treatment is psychotherapy. Medications and other types of physical treatment options are also prescribed. Your doctor will formulate the best treatment course of action for you.
Psychotherapy, often referred to as “talk therapy” has been shown to elicit great responses from sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cognitive therapy is focused on recognizing patterns of thinking that get you “stuck” in your emotional state. For example, this type of therapy might help you in recognizing cognitive patterns associated with negative perceptions of normal situations. Exposure therapy is often coupled with cognitive therapy if you have been diagnosed with PTSD. Exposure therapy focuses on safe exposure to what is causing you intense fear. This exposure enables you to cope with the stimulus effectively and rationally. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy that combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements. These combination of events in EMDR help you in your cognitive processing of traumatic events and allow you to effectively change your reactions to these types of events.
that have been found useful in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including Zoloft and Praxil, have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as antidepressant treatments for PTSD.
Anti-anxiety medications are typically prescribed short-term to relieve severe anxiety problems associated with PTSD. They are usually only prescribed temporarily because of the ease of addiction to this type of medication. Nightmare suppressant drugs (e.g., Prazosin) may also be prescribed if you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to help you sleep more easily and with fewer disruptions.
If you have experienced a terrifying traumatic event and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, treatment does exist and following it can help you to rebuild your life. To get the most of your treatment plans, follow these pieces of advice:
- Learn all you can about your disorder and what effects it has on your body – this allows you to recognize signs and symptoms and coping strategies
- Follow the treatment plans prescribed to you by your doctors and mental health providers – even if you are feeling “fine”
- Don’t turn to drugs and alcohol to “numb” your feelings
- Stay healthy – eat well-balanced meals and exercise on a regular basis
- Find support groups that can help you through difficult times – and to have a support base that you can talk to about anything
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