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What Is PTSD? Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment.

Jun 26, 2020

The movement to formally honor PTSD Awareness Day came in response to the tragic death of a North Dakota National Guard member who took his own life following two tours of Iraq. In the ten years since, emerging research has helped us all understand more about the roots and manifestations of the disorder. Some significant breakthroughs in treatments have also emerged in recent years.

We know that the first step in supporting those living with PTSD is awareness — so let's explore the facts about this condition that affects approximately 3.5 percent of adults in the United States.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is commonly experienced by members of the military or people residing in war zones. However, anyone can experience PTSD following any traumatizing experience. PTSD can either present immediately following the trauma or show up months to years down the road. The condition can last for months, years, or a lifetime. Typically, specific triggers will cause memories of a traumatic event to rush back into a person's mind. People who have PTSD will often experience very intense physical and emotional reactions. A person who has PTSD may be caught by surprise when a trigger creates a reaction. Most people who suffer from the condition are unaware of what is happening when they experience a trigger.

It is common for a person who experiences a traumatic event to have difficulty adjusting to day-to-day life immediately after the event. However, this does not necessarily mean that a person has PTSD. A diagnosis typically comes after a person has struggled with PTSD symptoms for several months.

Causes of PTSD

A lot of the work done on PTSD research and treatments today is centered on veterans returning from war zones. However, PTSD is certainly not exclusive to the military community. Anyone can experience PTSD stemming from personal or world events. There is great concern that current events like the global COVID-19 pandemic and societal unrest could be leaving many people vulnerable to PTSD. Here's a list of just some of the common causes of PTSD in individuals:

  • Serious accidents
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Childhood abuse
  • Domestic abuse
  • Severe health emergencies
  • A traumatic childbirth experience
  • War/violent conflict
  • Captivity
  • Torture
  • Witnessing or hearing about violence

We don't yet have a clear understanding of the mechanisms involved in why people develop PTSD. However, researchers and physicians do have many working theories. One prevalent theory is that PTSD is a survival mechanism. It is hypothesized that PTSD symptoms are the brain's way of helping us to survive future traumatic experiences by recalling details with bright precision. If this is true, the brain is essentially using flashbacks to help to keep memories fresh and vivid in our minds as a means of "being prepared." This might explain the levels of vividness and "realness" that people report when having flashbacks or dreams involving their traumatic experiences. Also, many people with PTSD report being in a constant state of feeling "on edge." It is believed that this "hyperarousal" may be designed to keep the brain alert and ready in the event of another attack or crisis.

Another piece of information that supports the theory of PTSD being a mechanism that the brain uses to stay prepared is that research shows that people with PTSD have unusually high adrenaline levels. Adrenaline is a stress hormone that prepares us to "spring into action." People with PTSD may be caught in a constant fight-or-flight state that causes the body to produce high amounts of stress hormones even when no immediate threat is present.

Lastly, we know a bit about how the brain of a person with PTSD looks thanks to brain scans. PTSD does appear to create visible changes in the brain. For instance, researchers have observed that the portion of the brain that's involved with processing emotions appears to be different in people who have PTSD. More specifically, the part of the brain called the hippocampus is much smaller in people with PTSD. This brain change may make it difficult for people living with PTSD to properly process memories in a way that allows them to reduce anxiety over time.

PTSD Symptoms

Let's talk a bit about how PTSD might manifest.

It's important to stress that PTSD is not something that has uniform symptoms. Sufferers may experience some or all of the symptoms in varying degrees. You cannot diagnosis yourself or someone else with PTSD without seeking the help of a professional. However, it is crucial to recognize some of the symptoms if you suspect that you or someone you care about may have PTSD. Here's a rundown of common symptoms that are often exhibited:

  • Intrusive and distressing recollections of the event via flashbacks and nightmares
  • Feeling emotionally numb with a desire to avoid all people, places, activities, and objects reminders of the trauma
  • Feelings of increased arousal
  • Feeling jumpy, easily angered, and easily irritated
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Persistent fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame
  • Persistent and distorted blame of oneself or others regarding the causes or consequences of a traumatic event
  • Inability to remember an important aspect or detail of a traumatic event

It's important to stress that PTSD may not be evident in someone suffering from the condition. Many people living with PTSD choose to isolate because they cannot predict when flashbacks will trigger severe emotional and physical responses. It's also important to say that an event does not necessarily need to be recent to trigger a PTSD response. For instance, childhood trauma can trigger PTSD in adults.

A Look at the Treatment Landscape for PTSD

We're seeing lots of very promising work being done in the realm of PTSD. Unfortunately, there was a time not long ago when research and resources were not very readily available for people who have PTSD. Researchers and doctors now have a wide array of therapies and treatments designed to help treat the particular symptoms of PTSD.

The three main treatments for PTSD currently are cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and behavioral therapy. Medications can also be used to manage PTSD symptoms. It's always necessary to work with healthcare providers to get an official diagnosis for PTSD before beginning any therapy. Generally, the goal of a therapist or care provider is to help people living with PTSD develop stress management skills. This can help those living with PTSD to discover ways to cope with stressors in their lives. In addition to personal therapy, group therapies can also be helpful for those who are processing traumatic events. PTSD treatment often includes a variety of treatments that address both the emotional and physical components of surviving a traumatic event.

Some Final Thoughts on PTSD

Many promising discoveries are being made in regards to PTSD research. Many researchers are finding success with using innovative therapies that help people with PTSD "override" how their brains are processing painful memories to allow them to move forward in healing. The fact that PTSD Awareness Day has been established is a promising step in recognizing the impact of trauma on individuals and society.

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