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Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- Diagnosis and Treatment

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How Do I Know If I Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

If you have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or are at risk of the condition, make an appointment with a qualified mental health professional who has experience treating patients with PTSD. Diagnosis is based on a report of your history in the aftermath of a psychological trauma. The health care provider will ask questions about your symptoms; ask you to describe the traumatic event; ask about your childhood, educational, and work experiences; and relationships with others. 

PTSD is classified as: 

  • Acute stress disorder: symptoms occurring within four weeks of the trauma.
  • Acute PTSD: symptoms lasting three months or less.
  • Delayed onset PTSD: symptoms appear six months after the trauma. 
  • Chronic PTSD: symptoms lasting more than three months. 

Other disorders that often accompany PTSD are depression, other anxiety disorders, and alcohol or drug abuse. You may be evaluated for these conditions as well.


What Are the Treatments for PTSD?

Psychotherapy for PTSD

Various forms of psychotherapy are helpful in PTSD.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps a person learn behavioral techniques for relaxation and restructure patterns of thinking that foster anxiety.
  • Exposure therapy involves systematically exposing someone to the memories and events associated with a trauma and reducing the fear response to these events, under the guidance of a trained therapist. 
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) involves presenting the patient with various visual and tactile stimuli meant to release emotional experiences and free the mind of blockages. 

In addition, support groups help people with PTSD work through their feelings with others who have had similar experiences.

The goal of therapy is to encourage the patient to recall all details of the event, express grief, complete the mourning process, and get on with life. For children, this may involve play therapy.

Medications for PTSD

Benzodiazepines, such as Valium, Xanax, and Ativan, are often useful for short-term, immediate relief of anxiety symptoms associated with PTSD. Long-term use of these medications is strongly discouraged.

A class of antidepressants known as selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Celexa, Paxil, Prozac, Lexapro, and Zoloft, help modify levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals) that foster appropriate communication between nerve cells, and can improve PTSD. 

Research also suggests that other medications, such as beta-blockers and corticosteroids, may help diminish the likelihood for forming strong negative emotional memories when given soon after experiencing a highly traumatic event. 

The blood pressure medicine prazosin has also been shown in preliminary research studies to help alleviate nightmares associated with PTSD

Anti-epileptic drugs with mood stabilizing properties, such as Depakote or Tegretol, may lessen mood swings and explosive anger.

Anti-psychotic drugs may help people with PTSD who have persistent paranoia.



WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 12, 2014

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