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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), once called shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome, is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, an accident, war, or natural disaster. Families of victims can also develop PTSD, as can emergency personnel and rescue workers.

Most people who experience a traumatic event will have reactions that may include shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt. These reactions are common; and for most people, they go away over time. For a person with PTSD, however, these feelings continue and even increase, becoming so strong that they keep the person from living a normal life. People with PTSD have symptoms for longer than one month and cannot function as well as before the event occurred.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD most often begin within three months of the event. In some cases, however, they do not begin until years later. The severity and duration of the illness vary. Some people recover within six months, while others suffer much longer.

Symptoms of PTSD often are grouped into three main categories, including:

  • Reliving: People with PTSD repeatedly relive the ordeal through thoughts and memories of the trauma. These may include flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares. They also may feel great distress when certain things remind them of the trauma, such as the anniversary date of the event.
  • Avoiding: The person may avoid people, places, thoughts, or situations that may remind him or her of the trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends, as well as a loss of interest in activities that the person once enjoyed.
  • Increased arousal: These include excessive emotions; problems relating to others, including feeling or showing affection; difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability; outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; and being "jumpy" or easily startled. The person may also suffer physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, nausea, and diarrhea.

Young children with PTSD may suffer from delayed development in areas such as toilet training, motor skills, and language.

Who Gets PTSD?

Everyone reacts to traumatic events differently. Each person is unique in his or her ability to manage fear and stress and to cope with the threat posed by a traumatic event or situation. For that reason, not everyone who experiences or witnesses a trauma will develop PTSD. Further, the type of help and support a person receives from friends, family members and professionals following the trauma may influence the development of PTSD or the severity of symptoms.

PTSD was first brought to the attention of the medical community by war veterans, hence the names shell shock and battle fatigue syndrome. However, PTSD can occur in anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. People who have been abused as children or who have been repeatedly exposed to life-threatening situations are at greater risk for developing PTSD. Victims of trauma related to physical and sexual assault face the greatest risk for PTSD.

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