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Stress After Trauma: Could It Be PTSD?

December 12, 2018

It’s common to feel anxious after a traumatic event, such as witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening event; being in combat, a natural disaster or a serious car accident; or coping with the death of a loved one. But if stress lingers beyond a few months, even after the situation is over, and makes it difficult for you to work, socialize or interact with others, you may have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD affects 7.7 million adults in the United States, and can occur at any age. PTSD is serious: Those with PTSD often are also depressed, have substance-abuse problems and suffer other anxiety issues. However, whether you have been living with PTSD for years, or if this is new, effective treatments exist. That’s why it is important to recognize the symptoms so you can seek help.

Understanding PTSD

PTSD is not new—it’s symptoms were described 2,500 years ago, and more recently, during the Civil War and World War II. In 1980, the condition was named PTSD, which brought more recognition to the disorder.

PTSD is common among military veterans: Almost a third of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD and 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans. Women are four times more likely to develop PTSD than men, and some researchers believe the risk of developing PTSD is higher if a family member has it.

Most people who develop PTSD notice symptoms within a few months of the event, but 25 percent do not have symptoms until six months after the event or even years later.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of PTSD include:Female veteran with PTSD

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma
  • Being easily startled
  • Being easily irritated; feeling aggressive
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Increased stress on trauma anniversary
  • Avoiding situations that trigger symptoms

These symptoms can interfere with your work and home life. Americans with PTSD have higher rates of relationship and marriage difficulties. Moreover, PTSD can increase the risk of suicide.

Whether you have been living with PTSD for years, or if this is new, effective treatments exist.

Diagnosing PTSD

If you think you may have PTSD, visit a psychiatrist for an assessment. During your visit, the doctor will ask about your symptoms, so be honest and forthright and provide a complete perspective of what you are experiencing. The doctor also will observe your behavior for signs of stress. If you’re diagnosed with PTSD, the doctor will determine if you’re suicidal or have any other psychiatric conditions, such as substance abuse, or other medical conditions that should be addressed.

Treating PTSD

Treating PTSD effectively includes psychotherapy and medicine. Psychotherapy helps you safely process the event that occurred. Through a type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, you can use your new perspective to begin to shift the way you behave, think or feel about the event. Psychotherapy is usually the first step, and medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which help with depression, may also be used. Once you begin taking medication, you should continue therapy for six to 12 months.

Researchers are studying different methods to treat PTSD. Coping skills, such as role playing, stress management, relaxation, exercise and biofeedback can be part of psychotherapy as well. But, researchers are still quantifying how effective these methods are. Mindfulness stress reduction teaches patients to live in the moment. Acceptance and commitment therapy involves teaching acceptance to patients. While only a few large trials have shown great success in this therapy, in smaller trials, there were great improvements in PTSD symptoms, depression and functioning. As researchers continue their work, more treatment options will become available.

If you have symptoms of PTSD, you don’t have to struggle alone. Talk with your doctor to get help with this devastating but increasingly treatable disorder.

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