Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Overview

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Thorough overview of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Description of PTSD- PTSD symptoms and causes, treatment for PTSD.

What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

It's been called shell shock, battle fatigue, accident neurosis and post rape syndrome. It has often been misunderstood or misdiagnosed, even though the disorder has very specific symptoms that form a definite psychological syndrome.

The disorder is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it affects hundreds of thousands of people who have been exposed to violent events such as rape, domestic violence, child abuse, war, accidents, natural disasters and political torture. Psychiatrists estimate that up to one to three percent of the population have clinically diagnosable PTSD. Still more show some symptoms of the disorder. While it was once thought to be a disorder of war veterans who had been involved in heavy combat, researchers now know that PTSD can result from many types of trauma, particularly those that include a threat to life. It afflicts both females and males.

In some cases the symptoms of PTSD disappear with time, while in others they persist for many years. PTSD often occurs with other psychiatric illnesses, such as depression.

Not all people who experience trauma require treatment; some recover with the help of family, friends, a pastor or rabbi. But many do need professional help to successfully recover from the psychological damage that can result from experiencing, witnessing or participating in an overwhelmingly traumatic event.

Although the understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder is based primarily on studies of trauma in adults, PTSD also occurs in children as well. It is known that traumatic occurrences--sexual or physical abuse,loss of parents, the disaster of war--often have a profound impact on the lives of children. In addition to PTSD symptoms, children may develop learning disabilities and problems with attention and memory. They may become anxious or clinging, and may also abuse themselves or others.

PTSD Symptoms

The symptoms of PTSD may initially seem to be part of a normal response to an overwhelming experience. Only if those symptoms persist beyond three months do we speak of them being part of a disorder. Sometimes the disorder surfaces months or even years later. Psychiatrists categorize PTSD's symptoms in three categories: intrusive symptoms, avoidant symptoms, and symptoms of hyperarousal.

Intrusive Symptoms

Thorough overview of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. Description of PTSD- PTSD symptoms and causes, treatment for PTSD.Often people suffering from PTSD have an episode where the traumatic event "intrudes" into their current life. This can happen in sudden, vivid memories that are accompanied by painful emotions. Sometimes the trauma is "re-experienced." This is called a flashback_a recollection that is so strong that the individual thinks he or she is actually experiencing the trauma again or seeing it unfold before his or her eyes. In traumatized children, this reliving of the trauma often occurs in the form of repetitive play.

At times, the re-experiencing occurs in nightmares. In young children, distressing dreams of the traumatic event may evolve into generalized nightmares of monsters, of rescuing others or of threats to self or others.

At times, the re-experience comes as a sudden, painful onslaught of emotions that seem to have no cause. These emotions are often of grief that brings tears, fear or anger. Individuals say these emotional experiences occur repeatedly, much like memories or dreams about the traumatic event.

Symptoms of Avoidance

Another set of symptoms involves what is called avoidance phenomena. This affects the person's relationships with others, because he or she often avoids close emotional ties with family, colleagues and friends. The person feels numb, has diminished emotions and can complete only routine, mechanical activities. When the symptoms of "re-experiencing" occur, people seem to spend their energies on suppressing the flood of emotions. Often, they are incapable of mustering the necessary energy to respond appropriately to their environment: people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder frequently say they can't feel emotions, especially toward those to whom they are closest. As the avoidance continues, the person seems to be bored, cold or preoccupied. Family members often feel rebuffed by the person because he or she lacks affection and acts mechanically.

Emotional numbness and diminished interest in significant activities may be difficult concepts to explain to a therapist. This is especially true for children. For this reason, the reports of family members, friends, parents,teachers and other observers are particularly important.

The person with PTSD also avoids situations that are reminders of the traumatic event because the symptoms may worsen when a situation or activity occurs that reminds them of the original trauma. For example, aperson who survived a prisoner-of-war camp might overreact to seeing people wearing uniforms. Over time, people can become so fearful of particular situations that their daily lives are ruled by their attempts to avoid them.

Others--many war veterans, for example--avoid accepting responsibility for others because they think they failed in ensuring the safety of people who did not survive the trauma. Some people also feel guilty because they survived a disaster while others--particularly friends or family--did not. In combat veterans or with survivors of civilian disasters, this guilt may be worse if they witnessed or participated in behavior that was necessary to survival but unacceptable to society. Such guilt can deepen depression as the person begins to look on him or herself as unworthy, a failure, a person who violated his or her pre-disaster values. Children suffering from PTSD may show a marked change in orientation toward the future. A child may, for example, not expect to marry or have a career. Or he or she may exhibit "omen formation," the belief in an ability to predict future untoward events.

PTSD sufferers' inability to work out grief and anger over injury or loss during the traumatic event mean the trauma will continue to control their behavior without their being aware of it. Depression is a common product of this inability to resolve painful feelings.

continue: Treatment for PTSD