When you hear the phrase “posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” you may picture soldiers returning home from the horrors of war and combat. It’s true, these dramatic experiences can be at the root of PTSD symptoms. But other sorts of trauma or intense stress can also lead to PTSD.
But how can you get help for yourself or for a family member?
What Is It?
PTSD tends to happen after a dangerous or scary event, though not every person with PTSD has gone through trauma.
Dangerous situations trigger your body to defend itself or get away, an impulse known as “fight or flight.” Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood in. This self-protection is normal, and most people bounce back quickly. But for some, the problems those situations cause tend to hang around. People can even feel stressed out or scared at times when they’re safe.
The effects of PTSD can last a long time (your doctor may call them chronic), or they can go away fairly quickly (acute).
Why Does It Happen?
Its origins aren’t fully understood. Scientists are still trying to find what determines how people respond to fear and hold onto memories. There may be biological traits, genetic roots, and other things at work.
Who’s Likely to Get It?
People who’ve been through a traumatic event can feel unsafe or scared. Sometimes, PTSD comes after a sudden, unexpected event like the death of a loved one.
People with PTSD often also have another anxiety disorder or depression. People with substance abuse issues are also more likely to have PTSD.
How’s It Diagnosed?
Doctors with experience treating mental illness, like psychiatrists or psychologists, are the ones to turn to if you’re concerned that you or a loved one may have PTSD.
You may have PTSD if you have all of the following symptoms for at least a month:
- Flashbacks or bad dreams
- You stay away from places, events, or feelings related to your traumatic event
- Tense or angry feelings, or trouble sleeping
- Persistent guilt or negative emotions
- Memory problems
- Disinterest in things you once enjoyed
How’s It Treated?
You don’t have to go through PTSD alone. A mental health professional can help you feel control over your life again.
- Skills to address symptoms
- How to feel more positive about yourself and others
- Ways to handle future symptoms
Treatment will also help you face other issues you might have along with your PTSD, like overuse of drugs and alcohol.
Primarily, this is done through psychotherapy. There are a few different types:
Cognitive therapy: You learn to recognize patterns in how you think. Then, you’ll figure out how to reverse negative thinking or behavior when it creeps in.
Exposure therapy: You learn how to safely process the memories of your traumatic experience and deal with things in everyday life that remind you of it.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A combination of exposure therapy and guided eye movements to help you process bad memories.
Medications can also help ease your symptoms. The FDA has approved sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) to treat PTSD.
Anti-anxiety drugs can be helpful. Atypical antipsychotics (quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone, etc.) may help with PTSD-associated symptoms like mood stabilization, paranoia, or sleep. More controversial is prazosin (Minipress), which is meant to lower the number of nightmares you have, or make them less severe. Research is mixed on whether it works.
Be sure to tell your doctor if you have trouble with any medications you take. You might need a different combination of drugs or a different dose or schedule to get the right fit.
What if I Don’t Have It Treated?
PTSD can put a strain on your emotional and mental health, as well as on your relationships with family and friends.
People who have gone through trauma can seem very different than they were before their event. They could be:
Without treatment, PTSD probably won’t go away on its own. It can also make other problems worse, like:
- Chronic pain
- Substance abuse
- Sleep disturbances
- Mental health problems
Day-to-day life and work may become more difficult, also.