At one point of our lives, most of us will have an experience that is overwhelming, frightening and beyond our control. Most of us will recover without needing help. However, for some the traumatic experience will set off a series of symptoms that may last for months, even years. This is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
How does Post Traumatic Stress Disorder start?
PTSD can start after any traumatic event. A traumatic event is one where you feel your life is threatened or in danger or where one sees other people dying or being injured as in the case of the recent Haiti earthquake.
Traumatic events include fatal traffic accidents, explosions, torture and war. Violent assaults such as rape, robbery, mugging and being taken hostage or kidnapped can also cause PTSD. Other events include natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or tornados. PTSD may also occur when a family member or close friend is diagnosed with a life threatening disease or suffers a serious accident or attack. These events undermine our sense security. A traumatic experience makes it clear that we can die any time.
What are the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
The symptoms usually appear within six months of a traumatic event.
Many people feel grief-stricken, depressed, anxious, guilty and angry after a traumatic experience. The physical symptoms associated with emotional stress include muscle aches, diarrhoea, fast and irregular heartbeats, headaches, feelings of panic and fear and a low mood. Most people resort to sleeping pills, painkillers or alcohol among other drugs.
The sufferer may also experience
Flashbacks and Nightmares: The person re-experiences the event repeatedly while asleep. The nightmares can be so realistic that one feels like they are living through the experience all over again. The person may also experience the emotions and physical sensation of the traumatic event such as fear, sweating, smells, sounds or pain.
Avoidance and Numbing: Re-experiencing this event repeatedly is very upsetting, so sufferers distance themselves. They immerse themselves in work, hobbies or drugs and alcohol to escape. Others may avoid people or events that remind them of the trauma and refuse to talk about it. This is known as avoidance.
Being “On Guard”: The person is alert a lot of the time as though looking out for danger. One cannot relax. The person is jumpy and irritable. This is referred to as “hyper vigilance”. One feels anxious and may find it hard to sleep.
Does everyone get Post-traumatic Stress Disorder after a traumatic event?
No. Most people will have the above symptoms for the first one month in what is called an “Acute Stress Disorder”. After a few weeks, the person comes to terms with what happened and their stress symptoms disappear. However, if symptoms persist for more than a month PTSD develops. About eight per cent of the population experience PTSD at one time or other in their lifetime.
Who is more likely to develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?
People of all ages are at risk. However, those who suffered a traumatic event in their childhood have a history of mental illness or had a recent stressful life change such as losing a job or a family member, are at a higher risk. Women are more likely than men to suffer PTSD are.
Treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder:
Medication: Antidepressants reduce the PTSD symptoms and relieve depression. Occasionally a person may be so distressed that they may need anxiety reducing medication.
Psychotherapy – “Talk Therapy”: This focuses on traumatic experiences that produced your symptoms. You cannot change or forget what happened. You can however learn to think differently about it. By remembering the event, going over it and making sense of it, your mind can do its normal job of storing memories away and moving on to other things.