Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue that can develop after witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening event such as combat, sexual assault, a natural disaster or a car accident. After such an experience, it may be hard at first to engage in normal daily activities, such as going back to work or school or socializing with friends and family.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel on edge, have disturbing memories or trouble sleeping after a traumatizing experience, most people will begin to feel better after about a month or a few weeks. If you’ve been through a traumatic experience that occurred many months ago and you’re still having trouble resuming a normal daily routine, it may be a sign that you are dealing with PTSD.
How does it feel to live with PTSD?
When you are living with unresolved, significant trauma the world around you feels unsafe. Upsetting memories may intrude on your thoughts, and you may find yourself avoiding things that are reminiscent of your trauma, even if they are things that you have enjoyed in the past.
There is no age factor related to PTSD. Anyone at any time may develop this condition after a severely traumatic experience. Professionals believe however that there are a number of factors that may increase the likelihood that someone develops PTSD.
Many of these factors are outside the realm of an individual’s control. As an example, going through an extremely intense or chronic trauma increases the risk of PTSD, as does being injured during the event. Studies show that PTSD is also more common after enduring certain types of trauma, such as sexual assault or combat.
What happens after the traumatic event occurs also influences the possible onset of PTSD. For example, increased stressors up the risk of PTSD, while familial and social support can decrease the risk.
What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?
Experts have outlined several basic signalers for PTSD symptoms, but each individual is likely to experience these in a unique manner depending on their own experience. It’s also important to note that while signs and symptoms most often begin after a traumatic event takes place, it’s also possible for them to appear years or months later, or come and go over a span of time. In general, if the following symptoms interfere with your work or home life, last longer than four weeks, or cause you great distress you may be experiencing PTSD.
- Re-experiencing the event is one hallmark of PTSD. In this case, you may find unwanted memories of the trauma returning at any time, along with the sense of fear and shock you went through during the event. Examples of such symptoms include flashbacks in which you feel like
- Actively avoiding any situation that reminds you of the event, such as driving if you were in a car accident or if your military convoy was attacked. Likewise, you may avoid watching movies about earthquakes, tornados, etc. if you lived through a natural disaster.
- Experiencing triggers that prompt you to relive a traumatic event. Examples of a trigger include anything that you smell, see or hear which reminds you of the trauma, including the sound of a car backfiring, witnessing an accident or even news reports.
- Living in a constant state of hypervigilance. PTSD can result in large-scale changes in how you feel and think about yourself and others due to the traumatic event. For example, you may perceive the world as a dangerous place, and believe no one should be trusted. Or you may have negative feelings toward others which keep you from developing relationships. Also common is a constant feeling of tension or hypervigilance marked by anxiety, being on constant alert for danger and sudden anger. Being scared by loud noises, sleep disruption and trouble concentrating are other signs common to PTSD.
PTSD in Children
For example, preschool-age children often become upset if their caregiver is not close by, act out their trauma through play, and may have trouble sleeping.
Children ages 7 to 11 may also act out their trauma through play, as well as through stories or drawings. Some may want to avoid school, while others may have trouble with schoolwork or socializing amongst peers. Additionally, nightmares can occur, along with increased aggression and irritability.
Up to the age of 18, symptoms in young people become more similar to those seen in adults. Signs include reckless behavior such as substance abuse or running away, anxiety, depression or emotional withdrawal.
Your symptoms of PTSD don’t have to interfere with your life
When individuals seek treatment for PTSD, “getting better” can mean different things for different people. Some people wish to get rid of all symptoms, while others find that having fewer or less intense symptoms is acceptable.
There are two broad types of treatment for unresolved trauma, psychotherapy and medication, with the two often combined at various stages of treatment.
Counseling or psychotherapy involves meeting with a therapist in order to explore and address your issue. There are specific trauma-focused therapies, all of which emphasize the memory of the traumatic event or its meaning. One such intervention is Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). Using CPT, clients learn skills to better understand how trauma has subsequently influenced thoughts and feelings. One of the hallmarks of this intervention is the belief that changing how you think about the trauma can change how you feel.
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