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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Everything You Need to Know
If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event, you understand the troubling feelings that follow. You might have invasive memories or flashbacks to the event, general anxiety, or difficulties sleeping. It’s normal to feel on edge after a traumatic event but those feelings usually lessen after a few weeks.
Symptoms that persist longer than that might be a sign of something more serious. They could be indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder, often referred to as PTSD. You might have the condition if you’re still having difficulty getting back to your everyday life a few months after the event.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious and complicated condition. People with PTSD experience intense and overwhelming thoughts and feelings as a result of their trauma. There are many layers to the disorder but it’s possible to relieve the symptoms and eventually cure the disorder.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder and how do you know if you have it? Who gets PTSD and how long does it last for? Does the disorder have a cure? Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
It’s normal to experience overwhelming fear during and soon after a traumatizing situation. Your body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in during the event and then a range of symptoms occur afterward. If your mind doesn’t properly process, work through, and move on from the event, though, you may still notice some fear responses months afterward.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that develops in some people after they experience a traumatic event. It doesn’t happen to every person who goes through a trauma. And not everyone with PTSD experienced a life-threatening event.
There are a variety of different situations that can lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder, such as:
- Living through a war as either a soldier or a civilian
- Severe car accidents
- Being kidnapped or held hostage
- Violent attacks, like a robbery or mugging
- Witnessing a violent attack or murder
- Being kidnapped or held hostage
- Extreme neglect, particularly during early childhood developmental years
- Sexual assault or sexual abuse, especially prolonged assault
- Diagnosis of a life-threatening illness
- Natural disasters, such as an earthquake, flood, tornado, or fire
- Sudden loss of a loved one, like a family member or close friend
Many different kinds of sudden, surprising, and upsetting events may cause someone to develop PTSD. What exactly does that diagnosis mean, though?
What a PTSD Diagnosis Means
There is still some stigma attached to vulnerability and showing your feelings, even in today’s world. Some people believe that the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder mean they are weak. You might feel like you should be able to just “get over it” or handle your stress and the outcome of the situation better.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Receiving a PTSD diagnosis does not make you weak. Trauma affects people differently. Even if someone who experienced the event alongside you didn’t have the same response, they have no bearing on your condition.
A post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis means you’re one step closer to finding a solution to those problematic and invasive thoughts. You’re going to learn that the event was not your fault, nor is the way you responded to it. You’ll get to take action and develop new tools to face the world on your terms again.
You can start taking your life back into your own hands once you have a PTSD diagnosis. To start the process of healing from the impact of that trauma, though, it helps to understand more about post-traumatic stress disorder.
When Was PTSD Discovered?
Traumatic events are not new. There are countless cases of traumatizing experiences over the past centuries. From animal attacks during the earliest times to the high-tech wars of today, humans beings are not strangers to trauma.
Understandings of the way humans respond to trauma are more modern science, though. Soldiers returned from World War I with “shell shock” and from World War II with “combat fatigue.” But war is not the only type of traumatic event that results in overwhelming psychological and physical responses.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) first addressed post-traumatic stress disorder in 1980. They included the PTSD diagnosis when they released the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) that year.
Post-traumatic stress disorder started as a controversial diagnosis at first but quickly found its place in psychiatry. It played an important role in removing the idea that people with lasting symptoms related to their trauma are weak. Instead, it helped psychiatrists and doctors understand the overwhelming responses people have to trauma.
The APA’s addition of PTSD emphasizes the traumatic event as the cause of the disorder rather than a flaw in the individual. This new understanding made it possible to work effectively with individuals seeking relief from their overwhelming symptoms.
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Where Was PTSD First Diagnosed?
Post-traumatic stress disorder started as a condition used to diagnose symptoms seen in military veterans. The first attempts at diagnosing PTSD followed the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Then the term “shell shock” was used in 1919 to describe the symptoms seen in World War I veterans.
World War II brought the terms “battle fatigue” and “combat stress reduction” to replace shell shock. These early attempts to diagnose the anxiety-based symptoms of combat veterans led to the condition we have today.
The condition saw its first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual mention in 1952 in the DSM-I as “gross stress reaction.” The second edition eliminated this diagnosis but the third edition re-instated and named the condition as we know it today: post-traumatic stress disorder.
Why Does PTSD Happen?
It’s normal to feel some anxiety, fear, or depression after experiencing a traumatic event. They often shift the way you navigate your life during the days and weeks afterward. You’re likely to experience some flashbacks or avoid certain places while you heal. At some point, though, you usually return to the way life was before.
Some people aren’t able to get back to their everyday life, though. They still have invasive thoughts about the event or avoid things that remind them of it months after it happened. These symptoms, as well as a few others, are first signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A person develops PTSD when they aren’t able to properly process and work through their trauma. Instead, their symptoms continue haunting them months after the event and often interfere with their ability to carry out their daily responsibilities.
Anyone can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. It doesn’t matter whether they are young or old, male or female, rich or poor. PTSD does not discriminate. It’s a debilitating condition that touches upon almost every aspect of a person’s life.
But a PTSD diagnosis does not make someone weak. It isn’t a reflection of their ability to handle difficult situations or work through their struggles. PTSD is a complicated condition that requires intense intervention to relieve.
When Does PTSD Start?
Stress, anxiety, and fear are common during the first few days following an event. Traumatic events are not an easy thing for anyone to work through and everyone responds to trauma differently. There is no “right way” to work through a life-altering event.
Most people work through the traumatic experience without much need for intervention. They process the event and work through their feelings naturally then move forward. But some are still plagued by their symptoms after the first few weeks and months are over.
Post-traumatic stress disorder develops over time. Symptoms that persist for longer than three months, or that go away for a while then return months later, are an indication of PTSD. If you notice you’re still reacting to the event more than a few months afterward, you might want to visit a psychiatrist for an assessment.
How Does PTSD Develop?
Post-traumatic stress disorder develops over a few months rather than immediately. It’s difficult to tell right away whether someone will end up with the condition. There are a few factors that put some people more at risk than others for developing PTSD. These include things like:
- Living through multiple traumatic experiences
- Surviving ongoing trauma over a long time
- Traumatic experiences that took place during developmental years
- Receiving little or no support from family or friends after the event
- Having a history of substance abuse or mental illness
- Managing extreme stress after the event takes place
- Having limited access to resources if needed
There are also factors called resilience factors that contribute to helping avoid the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. Resilience factors are things such as:
- Seeking support immediately after the traumatic event
- Surrounding yourself with supportive family and friends
- Finding a support group following the traumatic experience
- Maintaining positive self-esteem and self-image after the event
- Creating a coping strategy to work through the experience
Some research indicates that genetics may play a factor in risk and resilience factors. Additional studies will provide more definitive evidence about what leads someone to develop PTSD compared to someone who doesn’t.
Why is PTSD Classified as an Anxiety Disorder?
Up until the DSM-IV, post-traumatic stress disorder was classified as an anxiety disorder because it’s rooted in common symptoms of anxiety. However, the DSM-5 moved PTSD into a new category: Trauma- and Stressor-Related disorders.
The primary characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder is difficulty navigating the present because of traumatic events in the past. People who are diagnosed with PTSD experience symptoms that are split into four main categories:
- Re-experiencing symptoms
- Avoidance symptoms
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms
- Cognition and mood symptoms
Still, each of these groups contains a few anxiety-based symptoms. Those with PTSD seem to be in an ongoing state of “fight-or-flight” mode that started during the traumatic event. They often live with heightened anxiety that affects the way they approach their daily lives. Despite its move from the anxiety disorder class, it’s still an anxiety-ridden condition.
Who Can Get PTSD?
There aren’t any specific prerequisites that determine whether someone will develop PTSD. It can happen to anyone who lives through a traumatic event. People have likely experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder since the beginning of time. Traumatic situations are not a new phenomenon; they’ve simply evolved as society has progressed.
Assaults, violent attacks, and sudden deaths have always happened from the beginning of time. The difference is today’s understanding of how human beings process and respond to these types of events. Plenty of studies and research provide insight into who can get PTSD and how it happens.
People who develop post-traumatic stress disorder live with an unhealthy response to their trauma. It doesn’t matter whether they experienced time in combat, were in a severe car accident, or suddenly lost a loved one. Though they might display different symptoms, their response to their trauma is warped. Who can get PTSD?
PTSD Among Veterans
The post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis originated with soldiers who experienced active-duty combat in World War I. They were fatigued, fearful, stressed, crying, and experiencing flashbacks to their combat times. “Shell shock” emerged as the term used to describe these soldiers’ symptoms, then “combat fatigue” was later used during World War II.
Clinicians struggled to treat the intrusive memories and extended fight-or-flight responses soldiers brought back into their civilian lives. Charles Myers, a psychologist in the early 1900s, focused his work on studying and understanding these psychological disturbances. He contributed much to the initial understanding of PTSD among veterans today.
Shell shock and combat fatigue were conditions used specifically for combat veterans. The post-traumatic stress disorder used today is a more generic diagnosis. PTSD among veterans still refers to the fight-or-flight response that many soldiers return to civilian lives with.
Soldiers still return from present-day wars with distressing and disturbing memories. Thankfully, treatment for PTSD today is far more advanced than it was 100 years ago. Today, clinicians have a better understanding of how to work with these combat veterans.
Some clinicians specialize in working with veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. They use a combination of medication to relieve symptoms while they work through a soldier’s traumatic memories in therapy. Although some hesitate to seek help, treatment is often effective in relieving soldiers’ PTSD symptoms.
PTSD After Car Accident
If you’ve ever been in a car accident you understand what a jarring experience it can be. Both minor and severe car accidents shake you up for a few days afterward. It’s normal to feel nervous for your first few times getting behind the wheel of a car again. After those drives, though, you should be able to get back to driving regularly again.
Severe motor vehicle accidents can cause someone to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, though. Those that involve casualties are even more likely to cause PTSD. Survivors feel nervous and jumpy whether they’re in a car or not. They experience vivid flashbacks to the event which often lead to physical reactions, like jumpiness or increased heart rate.
PTSD after a car accident makes it difficult for people to start driving again. It’s challenging to face the risk of another possible accident which might keep people from driving for weeks or months afterward. Unless treated, these fears will increase as time passes and make it even harder to start driving again.
PTSD When Someone Dies
The sudden death of a loved one is another trigger for post-traumatic stress disorder. Losing a loved one, whether they were family or a close friend, is an overwhelming experience. It isn’t easy to cope with loss, especially unexpected loss.
It’s not uncommon for a person to develop PTSD when someone dies suddenly. The process of grief differs for everyone but you might find yourself stuck in a certain phase that you struggle to overcome. You might also notice that you experience different symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder depending on the way your loved one dies.
Seeking grief counseling or therapy is an important part of the process. You might notice lasting symptoms if you avoid asking for help. A counselor or therapist will walk you through a healthy grieving process. This gives you a better chance of returning to your life without carrying detrimental beliefs or behaviors along with you.
PTSD Without a Traumatic Event
It’s possible to develop PTSD without a traumatic event, at least in terms of what people tend to consider traumatic. Post-traumatic stress disorder is usually associated with extreme events like combat, violent attacks, or sexual assault. What counts as a traumatic event is unique to every individual, though.
Something that might not feel traumatic to one person may shatter another person’s idea of safety and comfort. When someone develops symptoms of PTSD as a result of a typically “non-traumatic” event, they may feel guilty or shameful. They might avoid talking about or seeking help for what’s going on.
Responding this way only makes their symptoms worse and deepens their feelings of guilt and shame. The truth is that developing PTSD without a traumatic event can happen. You might experience a life-changing event like a broken bone that might not seem traumatic but can similarly affect you.
Don’t let the thoughts of others keep you from seeking treatment for possible symptoms of PTSD. Try to avoid thinking that what you experienced wasn’t “traumatic enough.” Seek out a therapist if you notice that PTSD symptoms affect your daily life. They can walk you through the experience and help relieve any lasting symptoms.
What Are PTSD Symptoms?
Some people can return to their normal life a few weeks after a traumatic event occurs without the interruption of any ongoing symptoms. But those whose symptoms continue for at least a month afterward may have PTSD.
PTSD symptoms do not always appear right away. In some cases, symptoms may not show for months or even years after the traumatic event occurs. If they continue for longer than a month, though, they may be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD are split into four categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, mood/cognition, and arousal/reactivity. People display different types of symptomatic thoughts and behaviors that fall within each of these four categories.
Re-experiencing symptoms refer to the way a person revisits or “re-experiences” the traumatic event. These symptoms may be either voluntary (actively thinking about the event) or involuntary (unwelcome flashbacks to the event). These memories or flashbacks often feel almost as real as the initial trauma. Re-experiencing symptoms include:
- Experiencing nightmares about the traumatic event
- Having difficulties avoiding thinking about the event
- Experiencing a flashback, or a sudden and overwhelming memory about the trauma
- Seeing, hearing, or smelling something that is a reminder of the trauma and triggers memories or flashbacks
Avoidance symptoms refer to any behaviors or actions that aim to avoid places, people, or other things that remind a person of the traumatic event. Some symptoms are small, unobtrusive, and difficult to notice while others are very clear and obvious. Avoidance symptoms include:
- Not driving a car after being in a car accident
- Staying away from large crowds if they feel dangerous
- Avoiding movies with triggering subject matter that reminds someone of the trauma
- Staying active or busy to avoid having to think or talk about the event
Mood and Cognition Symptoms
Mood and cognition symptoms are those having to do with the psychological response to trauma. These are symptoms reflected in the way someone carries themselves or feels about themselves or the event. Mood and cognition symptoms include:
- Feeling anxious or depressed because of the traumatic event
- Having difficulties forming honest, trusting, or authentic relationships with others
- Struggling to trust others, even those closest to the person
- Seeing no reason to continue living, or having difficulty finding meaning in life
Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms
Arousal and reactivity symptoms are the physical reactions to the impact of a traumatic event. These symptoms are also called hyperarousal symptoms. Examples of arousal and reactivity symptoms include:
- Constantly feeling alert, anxious, jittery, or on edge
- Feeling the need to “look over their shoulder” constantly
- Having difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep
- Struggling with sitting still or feeling unoccupied
- Jumping or startling at loud noises or surprises
- Preferring to sit with their back to the wall in a restaurant, or within sight of the door
How Is PTSD Diagnosed?
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, Someone must show symptoms for at least a month following the traumatic event. If they appear months or years afterward, those symptoms also need to persist for at least a month. Symptoms usually tend to affect a person’s quality of life. They also cannot be caused by a factor other than the trauma, such as medications.
Additionally, someone needs to experience a few different symptoms from each of the four categories listed above. They must show at least:
- One re-experiencing symptom
- One avoidance symptom
- Two mood and cognition symptoms
- Two arousal and reactivity symptoms
If a person shows those minimum required symptoms for at least a month afterward, and they aren’t caused by any other factors, they likely have post-traumatic stress disorder. A clinician diagnoses them with PTSD and can begin treatment to relieve the impact of symptoms.
How PTSD Affects The Brain
Post-traumatic stress disorder essentially places a person into a nonstop “fight-or-flight” mode. They are on edge almost constantly, worried about the possibility of the trauma happening again. If they’re not actively thinking about their trauma, there is a chance that something may happen that triggers a response in them.
They also experience psychological impacts like difficulties forming healthy relationships. PTSD often encourages irrational thoughts that something bad might happen to them or to people they care about. Their view of the world tends to darken after the traumatic event, leading to a more negative outlook on life.
What PTSD Does To The Body
People with PTSD are often anxious, on edge, and very physically reactive to things that startle them. They may not be physically violent as a result of being surprised, but they’re usually very jumpy when they’re surprised.
The consistent “fight-or-flight” mode takes a physical toll on a person’s body as well. It’s physically exhausting to feel on edge all the time. Post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to fatigue and exhaustion, especially on more difficult days.
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What PTSD Flashbacks Look Like
People tend to think of the symptoms they see on television and in movies with their understanding of a mental illness. For example, one of those characteristic symptoms that people associate with PTSD is flashbacks.
Re-experiencing symptoms are one of the four main groups of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. These refer to the flashbacks, nightmares, and recurring memories of the traumatic event. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms but flashbacks are one of the most common symptoms of PTSD.
A flashback is an intense episode where a person re-lives the traumatic experience while they’re awake. Unlike nightmares, you can’t wake up from a PTSD flashback. They hijack your mind and feel like you’re having a nightmare while you’re still awake.
The person might hear, see, or smell things they did while the traumatic event happened. This often leads to physical symptoms as their body re-lives the experience. These include anxiety, panic, elevated heart rate, sweating, shaking, and more.
Sometimes flashbacks are so intense that people have a hard time separating what is real from what is part of the episode. It feels like they’re experiencing the traumatic event all over again in real-time and it’s difficult for them to pull out of it.
PTSD Without Flashbacks or Nightmares
Not everyone with PTSD has flashbacks or nightmares as their re-experiencing symptoms. This doesn’t mean their diagnosis is any less valid than someone who does; their experience is simply different.
People who have PTSD without flashbacks or nightmares still have memories of the event. Their memories might not hijack their mind in the same way a flashback does, but those memories still cause anxiety and stress in real-time.
Although flashbacks are a severe symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, invasive memories of the event can be just as challenging. Some people have certain triggers that force the memory of the event to the front of their minds. These triggers may come out of nowhere, such as things like loud bangs or sudden stops in a car.
Other triggers are easier to predict, such as going to certain places or being around certain people. Things that remind the person of the traumatic experience are likely to trigger those invasive memories and cause incredible distress.
How PTSD Affects Life
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be an incredibly debilitating mental illness. The extent to which PTSD affects a person has no bearing on their strength or their character. There is nothing easy about living with PTSD and it isn’t as simple as “getting over it.”
Various factors contribute to the extent to which it affects a person’s daily life. The type of traumatic event a person experienced, the location and time it occurred at, or who they were are all things that contribute to its impact.
For example, if someone has PTSD that resulted from a severe car accident, they may avoid traveling in a car. This will have an incredible impact on their ability to get around. Someone else might have been assaulted while in their home. That is likely to make it very difficult for them to stay at home.
In addition to the avoidance symptoms, other factors cause PTSD to affect a person’s life. Some people have unpredictable and crippling flashbacks that make it challenging for them to navigate daily life. Their symptoms might affect their ability to take care of their daily responsibilities or hold down a job.
What PTSD Feels Like
The easiest way to explain what PTSD feels like is like your fight-or-flight mode is always engaged to some extent. Many people with PTSD feel like they’re constantly on edge and ready for something to happen. Some feel like they need to remain aware of their surroundings and prepared for sudden or unexpected triggers.
PTSD doesn’t feel the same way for everyone, though. Similar to the ways PTSD doesn’t affect everyone’s lives exactly the same, PTSD feels different for different people. Although there are groups of similar symptoms that help clinicians diagnose PTSD, there is no “one-size-fits-all” experience for the disorder.
For example, post-traumatic stress disorder tends to cause high levels of anxiety and stress. People experience those feelings at different times, though. Some people can navigate the day with relative ease while the nights lead to overwhelming unease and anxiety. Others struggle during the day then find themselves fatigued and exhausted by the end of it.
How PTSD Affects the Individual and Their Life
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder impact various aspects of a person’s life. There are numerous ways PTSD can affect a person’s family, home, employment, or education. The specifics differ depending on the individual, but the distress they experience is similar.
The way PTSD affects an individual and their life depends on the trauma they experienced as well as what they have going on in their life. For example, someone who was the victim of a sexual assault will have a different experience than someone who survived combat. They both experience the distress of PTSD but the effects will be different.
Similarly, someone who has a spouse and children will have a different experience than someone who is a student at a university. Post-traumatic stress disorder has a similarly severe impact on both individuals but in two different ways.
If you have a loved one with PTSD, try to learn all you can about the disorder. There is little you can do to relieve their symptoms on your own but you can support them during their recovery. The more you understand how PTSD affects the individual and their life, the better you can advocate for them.
How PTSD Affect Relationships
Post-traumatic stress disorder often impacts a person’s ability to form relationships. Some victims of neglect or assault struggle to trust other people and choose to avoid forming close relationships with others. It feels safer to stay away from close bonds with others than risk the chance of putting their trust into the wrong people.
The avoidance symptom of PTSD affects relationships to an extreme for some people. They may avoid not only forming new relationships but building on any existing relationships they already have.
This poses a challenge both for the individual with PTSD and also for their friends and family. Those who want to help might have a difficult time getting close to their struggling loved one. All they want to do is provide love and support but the disorder affects their connection and makes it challenging for both sides.
Friends and family who don’t understand symptoms of PTSD may take their loved one’s distancing personally. They think it’s something to do with them rather than a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. This misunderstanding might lead to miscommunication and unnecessary stress on the person with PTSD.
How PTSD Affects Marriage
Marriage is one of the most serious commitments a person can make. The bond between two married partners is closer and unlike any other relationship in their lives. Because of this, post-traumatic stress disorder can affect this relationship in a way it doesn’t affect others.
The symptoms of PTSD can place incredible strain on a marriage. It isn’t easy to live with PTSD symptoms but it is also challenging to live with someone who has them. Post-traumatic stress disorder affects not only the person with the condition but it affects the person’s spouse as well.
For example, if a person’s symptoms leave them unable to work, this impacts both them and their spouse. The financial strain caused by their symptoms affects both partners in a marriage, not just the person with PTSD.
On the other hand, if a spouse doesn’t understand the potential extent to which PTSD affects marriage, it can make or break the relationship. They might not understand how severe symptoms of PTSD can be.
The best way a spouse can support their partner with PTSD is to learn more about the condition. An unsupportive spouse can have a severe impact on a person’s ability to recover. Post-traumatic stress disorder recovery is most effective when the person is surrounded by support.
How PTSD Affects Work
There isn’t only an impact on relationships and marriage, PTSD affects work for some individuals as well. The extent to which it affects their employment depends on the person and their trauma, and some might not experience an impact at all. Still, there is the possibility it could affect a person’s ability to find or maintain employment.
Sometimes invasive memories or flashbacks occur at unpredictable times during work hours. The re-experiencing symptoms may be so severe that the person cannot complete the tasks their work requires. Other symptoms like depression or anxiety can also impact their performance at work.
If their PTSD symptoms are severe enough to affect their work, it might be helpful to take some time off to focus on recovery. Some companies offer incredible benefits that may allow them to take time off to seek treatment. Others might not provide the treatment itself but allow for time off to find help before returning to work.
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How PTSD Affects Sleep
PTSD affects sleep in numerous ways, including the people who do not have nightmares. Extreme anxiety makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. They toss and turn throughout the night plagued by their overwhelming nerves. Others experience extreme depression related to their PTSD that makes getting out of bed feel impossible.
The most severe examples of how PTSD affects sleep, however, are seen in those who experience nightmares. Vivid and recurrent nightmares surrounding the event plague many people with post-traumatic stress disorder. After struggling with their memories during the day, they cannot escape them even in their sleep.
Severe PTSD nightmares lead to various sleeping problems, most notably insomnia. Fear of their nightmares keeps them awake late into the night. Once they finally fall asleep they’re often jolted awake by the horrific dreams that place them back in the heart of the event. It’s difficult to fall asleep again after waking which creates an exhausting cycle.
Some studies show that sleep disturbances caused by PTSD also worsen symptoms over time if left untreated. Exhaustion leads to heightened anxiety and agitation as well as more severe impacts on sleep.
PTSD and Anger
Anger is a common response to trauma for every individual but that sense of anger is heightened in individuals with PTSD. It’s a survival mechanism that helps individuals process through the overwhelming and unfair circumstances of the trauma.
Anger also arises as a mechanism of protection. Rather than placing themselves in a position to be made a victim again, some turn to anger to protect themselves. They lash out at anything or anyone they perceive as a threat as a way of keeping themselves safe.
PTSD and anger are seen especially in victims of childhood trauma. Trauma that takes place during developmental childhood years affects the way they learn to process and express emotion. Childhood trauma victims often have a difficult time regulating and rationalizing their emotions and turn to outbursts of anger instead.
Anger is a secondary emotion that covers the true root of the problem: the trauma itself. It is sometimes easier to express anger than to dive in and work through the impact of trauma. But the longer a person’s PTSD goes untreated, the harder time they will have learning to let go of using anger as a coping mechanism.
PTSD and Co-occurring Disorders
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an intense and often all-consuming diagnosis. It’s a hard condition to live with on its own. In some cases, the extreme symptoms seen in people with PTSD sometimes cause them to develop other illnesses. When another condition arises simultaneously it’s called co-occurring disorders.
Numerous disorders can co-exist alongside post-traumatic stress disorder. Common conditions seen in those with PTSD and co-occurring disorders include anxiety disorders as well as alcohol and substance use disorders.
Those who have PTSD and co-occurring disorders have a new set of difficulties to overcome. It isn’t easy living with the first condition and now they have to address a second. Treatment is especially important for people in these cases in order to have a better chance at returning to normal life.
PTSD with Anxiety
Nervousness and anxiety are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services categorizes PTSD as a type of anxiety disorder. As understanding surrounding the disorder develops, though, clinicians started to categorize it as a separate condition.
It’s important to separate it from anxiety disorders because the anxiety is a result of their trauma specifically. Additionally, there are some cases where their PTSD symptoms evolve into a full-blown co-occurring anxiety disorder.
Panic disorder is a common example of PTSD with anxiety. Those with panic disorder experience recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. In many cases, panic disorder starts with flashbacks then develops into episodes as time passes. Although the source of the panic attacks is clear in someone with pre-existing PTSD, it doesn’t make them any less severe.
Some develop a co-occurring phobia-related disorder alongside their post-traumatic stress disorder. These stem from avoidant symptoms, such as staying away from certain events or locations. Avoidant symptoms may shift into a total phobia as time goes on, especially when the person does not receive appropriate treatment.
PTSD with Depression
Feeling down or depressed is a normal symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. The effects of the condition have a significant impact on a person’s mood, energy levels, and overall interest in life. Some people find their depressive symptoms are more severe than PTSD’s usual effects. These individuals may also qualify for a depression diagnosis.
Surviving a traumatic event, in general, is a risk factor for depression. Developing PTSD as a result of that trauma also increases the likelihood that a person will develop depression. When post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive disorders exist simultaneously, it has a significant effect on a person’s quality of life.
People with the disorder tend to detach from the world and those around them, creating a sense of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. They may also lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed. Their traumatic experience may also affect their outlook on those around them and the world in general.
Depression is another one of the most common comorbidities with post-traumatic stress disorder. It isn’t easy to live with the effects of PTSD. It’s draining to try to navigate the world while feeling anxious and on edge. PTSD symptoms tend to worsen the effects of depression and make it more difficult to reconnect with the world.
PTSD with Bipolar Disorder
An estimated 4 percent of adults in the United States receive a bipolar disorder diagnosis at some point in their life. This severe mood disorder is separated into two separate categories: bipolar I and bipolar II. Both types of bipolar disorder are characterized by shifts between manic episodes and depressive episodes.
During manic episodes, people are more likely to make impulsive, uncalculated, and possibly dangerous decisions. They are at greater risk of traumatic exposure during these periods. If they experience a traumatic event their pre-existing mood disorder makes it more likely they’ll develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Having difficulties regulating emotion is a common part of living with bipolar disorder. Someone with bipolar may have a difficult time processing a traumatic experience. Some people can work through the event and leaving it in the past. Those with bipolar are more likely to try blocking it out to avoid overwhelming feelings.
Bipolar disorder is already a difficult condition to cope with. Developing post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to bipolar will only worsen both conditions. It’s important to seek treatment especially when the two conditions are co-occurring.
PTSD with Panic Attacks
Anyone who has experienced a panic attack understands how terrifying they can be. They come on almost without warning and hijack you entirely, from your brain to your body. Trembling, shaking, sweating, and difficulties breathing are common during a panic attack. It feels impossible to control these physical symptoms which ignites a psychological struggle.
Panic disorder refers to those who experience reoccurring and unexpected panic attacks. Their panic attacks are debilitating and come on with few to no signs. The possibility of an unexpected panic attack leads people to live in fear of when the next one might come.
The re-experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder cause sensations similar to a panic attack. Shortness of breath and heart palpitations are brought on by flashbacks to the traumatic event. Hyperarousal symptoms are also similar to those seen in people with panic disorder.
When someone with a pre-existing panic disorder experiences a traumatic event, they’re more likely to develop PTSD. They are already anxious and fearful to begin with due to the existing possibility of a panic attack. Their PTSD symptoms, especially, re-experiencing and hyperarousal symptoms, will be far more extreme.
PTSD with Substance and Alcohol Use Disorder
Someone who doesn’t receive treatment for their post-traumatic stress disorder will likely find their own ways of coping with their symptoms. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is a common method of numbing their effects. One study showed that 46.4 percent of people who had PTSD also meet the criteria for a substance or alcohol use disorder.
Substance and alcohol use disorder are the most common comorbid condition with post-traumatic stress disorder. Using drugs and alcohol blunts the effects of the overwhelming symptoms that come with the condition. People use substances to relieve the constant anxiety, soften the impact of flashbacks, or help them fall asleep at night.
What seems to be a great short-term solution, though, ultimately leads to some serious long-term consequences. Drugs and alcohol are not as helpful as they appear to be and often make the symptoms of PTSD worse. Over time it takes more substances to achieve the same effects as before and drinking and drug use can quickly spiral out of control.
Seeking treatment is imperative when substance and alcohol use disorder co-occur with PTSD. Once alcohol and drugs become a default coping mechanism a person needs to learn to cope in healthier ways. Treatment is the first step toward learning to work through PTSD symptoms without the numbing effects of substances.
PTSD and Addiction
Whether a person develops post-traumatic stress disorder or not, experiencing trauma is not easy for anyone. Alcohol and drugs are commonly used to place a hypothetical band-aid over the overwhelming emotions that follow.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are intense, severe, and often overwhelming. They can affect any number of areas in a person’s life from their partner or spouse to their family, their education to their employment, even their appetite and their sleep schedule.
When symptoms become too overwhelming to deal with, some people use alcohol or drugs to make them easier to deal with. They might find that substances take the edge off the anxiety, dull the emotional pain of the memories, or make it easier to fall asleep at night.
Using substances to manage symptoms is called self-medicating. Self-medicating can be a dangerous practice to turn to, no matter how much or how little a person drinks or uses. Substances might seem like they relieve the impact of various symptoms but they only make them worse as time goes on.
One of the biggest risks of using substances to self-medicate is the risk of developing a substance use disorder. Not everyone develops a substance abuse or alcohol addiction problem but the possibility is there.
Also called co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis, alcohol or drug addiction and PTSD are a complicated combination. These simultaneous disorders immediately make their condition an even greater challenge to overcome.
PTSD and Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol is the most readily-available substance and it’s easy to turn to for quick relief from overwhelming symptoms. It helps people numb complicated emotions or momentarily forget difficult memories that result from trauma. And the data reflects how wide an impact alcohol use has on those who experienced trauma.
Some studies show that up to one-third of trauma survivors report developing a drinking problem later on. Between 60 and 80 percent of Vietnam veterans who seek treatment for PTSD also have a co-occurring alcohol problem.
Drinking problems alone create divides between the drinker and their family, friends, and acquaintances. A drinking problem that co-occurs with post-traumatic stress disorder creates an even more difficult condition to be around.
Along with the impact that the combination of PTSD and alcohol addiction has on a person’s relationships, the alcohol directly impacts their symptoms as well. It might feel like having a few drinks relieves the pressure of trauma symptoms but it merely postpones the processing period.
It worsens symptoms including numbness or difficulties with handling emotions, feeling cut off from people around them, anger and irritability, depression, anxiety, and restlessness. As alcohol dependence grows, too, then alcohol withdrawal symptoms may also interact with and worsen their PTSD symptoms.
PTSD and Drug Abuse
Drugs are less accessible than alcohol but there are still plenty of substances people with PTSD to manage their symptoms. One study showed that over 46 percent of people who had PTSD also qualified as having a substance use disorder. An older study on Vietnam veterans in the 1980s revealed that 74 percent of those studied also had a co-occurring drug problem.
Additionally, combat veterans from Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn also showed high rates of both substance and alcohol use disorder alongside PTSD. 63 percent of veterans with an alcohol or substance use disorder also had a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
Drugs provide the same short-term numbing effects as alcohol, giving individuals a moment to escape their symptoms of trauma. Even though it only serves to compound with and complicate their symptoms over time, the short-term effects are often worth it to some.
Although not everyone will develop a substance use disorder, any form of substance use only delays their process. It puts off having to work through the complicated aftermath of their trauma and only serves to make their struggles worse as time passes.
How is PTSD Treated?
Although post-traumatic stress disorder is a tiring condition to live with, thankfully there are treatments proven to relieve symptoms. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to PTSD treatment, though, because there are so many variables that affect whether someone develops the condition.
Effective PTSD treatment generally includes two main categories: therapy and medication. Numerous approaches to therapy are available so individuals can find the types that work best for them. Antidepressant medications alleviate symptoms and allow for more productive treatment sessions. Below are some of the various methods used to treat PTSD.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a go-to therapy method when treating a variety of mental disorders and illnesses. It laid the foundation for a variety of other types of therapy in use today.
CBT approaches treatment with the understanding that a person’s thoughts influence their feelings, which influences their behavior. When someone holds negative or false beliefs about themselves or the world, they tend to act out accordingly. Clinicians teach patients to identify and adjust their negative thought patterns to alter their behavior.
As patients learn to catch and change their automatic thoughts, their behavior reflects the shift. It’s an active form of therapy that requires active practice outside of sessions to achieve effective results.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR for short, is a therapy specifically for people with trauma. EMDR for PTSD is considered the gold standard for treatment and is one of the most popular approaches. Studies have shown it’s a highly effective method when treating PTSD.
Clinicians ask clients to focus on a back and forth external stimulus, or bilateral stimulation, that is generally visual, auditory, or tactile. Clients then focus on their traumatic memory during the bilateral stimulation. Their therapist guides them through reprocessing the memory to limit or eliminate any intense physical or emotional responses.
During prolonged exposure therapy, therapists walk patients through addressing aspects related to the trauma that they have avoided. It’s a difficult and sometimes controversial treatment approach because of its potential intensity.
Clinicians walk their patients through facing their negative feelings head-on. It involves talking about not only the trauma itself but related emotions, beliefs, and understandings. Although it’s a challenging method, prolonged exposure therapy has some of the strongest evidence of its efficacy.
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Cognitive processing therapy is another therapeutic approach that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Clinicians encourage clients to address and change their negative thought patterns to change how they feel.
It’s a great method for working with individuals who blame themselves for the trauma. Cognitive processing therapy encourages them to assess the validity behind their beliefs. It also provides a space for them to look honestly at the facts and determine whether they support those thoughts.
There are various types of alternative therapies to provide a more well-rounded, comprehensive approach to treatment. Using methods like yoga therapy or animal-assisted therapy encourages clients to engage with therapy in different ways.
Not every alternative therapy approach is backed by studies or evidence. Still, many find that adding these types of therapies is beneficial to their recovery. They should continue using whichever methods provide relief from their PTSD symptoms.
Medications are another helpful part of a comprehensive treatment program. Taking medication does not cure PTSD or remove a person’s symptoms entirely. They do provide relief which allows for more effective treatment sessions and a greater ability to navigate their daily life.
Antidepressants are the most common medications used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are the two main classes used. Some common medications for PTSD include:
- Fluoxetine (Prozac)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Venlafaxine (Effexor)
- Sertraline (Zoloft)
What Happens When PTSD Goes Untreated?
People don’t just “get over” PTSD. It isn’t a condition that goes away after a while and ignoring it can lead to harmful consequences. Left untreated, post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to long-term psychological effects.
Untreated PTSD may manifest itself in other disorders, such as major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve their symptoms which may result in a substance or alcohol use disorder.
Eventual suicidal thoughts or ideation are a possibility when individuals don’t seek help for their post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms may reach a point where they’re too overwhelming or exhausting to deal with and suicide seems like the only way out.
How to Get Help for PTSD
When PSTD symptoms are intrusive and persistent it often feels like they’ll never go away. That shouldn’t be a reason to avoid asking for help, though. Trauma can cause some serious long-term effects and developing post-traumatic stress disorder does not make you weak.
If you’re struggling with possible symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a way out. You don’t have to deal with the condition on your own and it doesn’t have to last forever. There are programs available to help you work through the difficulties of your trauma and any possible co-existing disorders that developed as a result.
Hawaii Island Recovery offers numerous intensive and comprehensive programs for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder. Are you ready to receive the help you deserve? Take the first step and reach out to us today at 877-721-3556. We’re here for you.