Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can happen when someone experiences a traumatic event. PTSD refers to a cluster of physical and emotional symptoms that can affect someone’s overall well-being.
Research shows that PTSD affects approximately 3.5% of the US population, and women are twice as likely to experience the condition compared to men.
It’s crucial for you and your loved ones to understand the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options. Let’s get into what you need to know.
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What Are the Key Risk Factors of PTSD?
It’s important to remember that experiencing trauma doesn’t inherently mean you will develop PTSD. We all cope with trauma differently, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to process these challenging moments.
Likewise, it’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, or helpless just after a life-threatening event. Most people take some time to readjust and acclimate back to their everyday lives. That said, certain risk factors may elevate the risk of PTSD.
History of Complex Trauma
Complex trauma essentially refers to repeated traumatic experiences that jeopardize your development or sense of safety. Complex trauma can change how the brain responds to danger. Over time, you might be more susceptible to PTSD symptoms.
Suggested reading: PTSD vs Complex PTSD
Lack of Stable Support
We need validation and connection to feel safe. If you don’t have close family or friends, you may feel more alone in your struggles. Likewise, if you have toxic relationships in your life, you may spend more time caring for them than yourself. This cycle can deplete your mental health, making you more vulnerable to PTSD.
History of Mental Health Conditions
If you struggle with preexisting mental health problems, you may have a more challenging time coping with trauma. Depression or anxiety can exacerbate your stress response, which can trigger PTSD symptoms. Furthermore, if you’ve experienced PTSD in the past, you might be more likely to experience it again.
Family History of PTSD
Having a family member with a history of PTSD may increase the likelihood of developing PTSD. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but they believe it results from a combination of both genetic and environmental factors.
Experiencing Prolonged Stress After the Trauma
Some traumas can result in life-changing consequences. For example, a fatal car accident can leave someone as a newly-widowed single parent. A violent assault can result in severe injuries. A natural disaster can cause an entire family to lose their home and livelihood.
The aftermath of trauma can feel like one stressful event after another. The emotional, physical, and financial toll can increase PTSD symptoms.
Limited Coping Skills
Coping skills refer to how you manage daily stressors. They can be tangible, like journaling or taking a walk. They can also be more abstract, like trying to practice self-compassion or mindfulness. If you don’t have adequate coping skills, you may be more vulnerable to stress and mental health problems.
What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD symptoms typically emerge within a few weeks or months after a trauma. However, in some cases, symptoms may not appear for several years. This delay in symptoms tends to be more common when the trauma occurred in early childhood. It can also happen when someone cannot properly grieve a loved one after they die.
To receive an accurate PTSD diagnosis, you must have directly or indirectly experienced a traumatic event. Direct experiences entail events that happened to you. Indirect experiences entail events that you witnessed or heard about occurring to someone else.
To meet the additional criteria for PTSD, an individual must experience symptoms for at least a month. The symptoms must also be severe enough to affect their relationships, physical health, work, or school performance.
Re-experiencing symptoms refer to essentially reliving the trauma as if it’s happening in real-time. Depending on the severity of someone’s condition, these symptoms can range from mildly distressing to downright debilitating.
Common re-experiencing symptoms include:
- Flashbacks associated with being back in the traumatic event.
- Vivid nightmares.
- Intrusive thoughts related to the trauma.
Avoidance symptoms result from the individual attempting to keep themselves safe. As a result, they will withdraw or isolate themselves from certain relationships or activities.
Common avoidance symptoms include:
- Isolating from loved ones.
- Refusing to go to certain kinds of events or locations.
- Avoiding talking about the trauma or allowing themselves to think about it.
- Dissociating (having the experience that they are outside their physical bodies).
Hyperactivity and Arousal Symptoms
The body releases a fight, flight, or freeze response when reacting to threats. However, PTSD can skew the reality of real danger. People may find themselves feeling overwhelmed even in safe or benign situations.
Common hyperactivity and arousal symptoms include:
- Experiencing panic attacks.
- Having persistent, racing thoughts.
- Feeling “on edge” when around others.
- Being easily scared or startled.
- Having angry outbursts (these can sometimes happen when asleep).
Cognition and Mood Symptoms
Cognition and mood symptoms often perpetuate feelings related to guilt and shame. They can also exacerbate depression or anxiety.
Common cognition and mood symptoms include:
- Having negative, self-loathing thoughts about oneself.
- Feeling a sense of hopelessness or helplessness.
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts.
- Feeling disproportionate blame for what happened (or experiencing survivor’s guilt).
- Difficulty with memory or recall of the event.
What Are the Main Differences in PTSD Symptoms Between Adults and Children?
PTSD may be overlooked in children and adolescents. That’s because they often exhibit different symptoms from adults.
Young children, for example, cannot express their feelings or vocalize what happened to them. Even older children might struggle to articulate their stories.
If you are a parent or caretaker of children, it’s essential to look for sudden changes in their regular routine and personality. For example, if your child was earning straight A’s, a sharp decline in their academic performance is a concern. Or, if your child has a relatively carefree personality, you should pay attention to observable symptoms of depression or anxiety.
PTSD Symptoms in Young Children
- Regressing in age-based behavior (i.e., talking like a baby, asking to wear diapers, wanting to be carried everywhere).
- Describing the trauma through creative expression like playing with toys, drawing, or with imaginary friends.
- Becoming overly clingy to a caretaker.
- Refusing to talk.
- Becoming irritable and agitated.
- Hurting other children or themselves.
- Having significant sleep problems and wanting to sleep with a caretaker.
- Experiencing nightmares, bed-wetting, or other sleep problems.
PTSD Symptoms in Adolescents and Teenagers
- Refusing to attend school.
- Presenting as excessively moody or depressed.
- Making comments about death or dying (even if they insist they’re joking).
- Substance use.
- Isolating from friends or having a new friend group suddenly.
- Getting in trouble at school or with law enforcement.
- Evidence of self-harm (cutting, burning, disordered eating).
- Disconnecting at home and making comments about how nobody understands them.
How Is PTSD Diagnosed?
A qualified mental health professional like a doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist can diagnose PTSD. If you suspect you might be struggling, consider scheduling a consultation.
It’s important to rule out any medical or psychological conditions. For example, PTSD can also share symptoms with disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. This nuance explains why professionals use extensive data to diagnose PTSD.
When diagnosing, your provider will also consider:
- The intensity of the symptoms you experience.
- The frequency of the symptoms.
- The timeline of when symptoms first emerged.
- Your past experiences with traumatic events.
- Any medical or psychiatric complications.
They do not just examine one symptom at a time. Instead, they often look at how the symptoms interact with one another and affect your entire health.
What Are Your Treatment Options for PTSD?
PTSD is treatable.
Many people report experiencing a significant reduction in symptoms after receiving professional support. Additionally, it’s possible to have a full recovery and find a greater sense of meaning and fulfillment in your life.
Like with all mental health conditions, there isn’t a single, best treatment option. Everyone responds differently to therapies and medication. You may need to try various interventions before learning what works best for you.
Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is an evidence-based treatment that can help reduce your reaction to trauma. EMDR entails eight distinct phases, all of which are designed to help you recognize your trauma triggers, learn new coping skills, and share your story without feeling as overwhelmed.
Some clients receive EMDR as an independent treatment. Others participate in EMDR in conjunction with other therapies or groups.
Research on EMDR shows promising results. Compared to traditional talk therapy, people often experience relief faster. That said, EMDR can be intense, and it requires ongoing motivation and willingness to change.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is also widely-used for trauma treatment. CBT works by challenging negative thoughts you have about yourself or the world around you. In changing these thoughts, you will ideally experience more relief and confidence.
CBT is a structured therapy with several components that may include:
- Relaxation training.
- Building social skills.
- Positive affirmations.
- Journaling exercises.
- Reestablishing new core beliefs.
- Role-play exercises.
Equine, art, music, and dance therapies can all help treat PTSD symptoms. These therapies allow clients to express their feelings without talking about them directly. Such creative expression can promote confidence, mastery, and healing.
Many people benefit from these interventions when traditional therapies don’t work. They can also be supplementary to other treatments.
Many specialized support groups provide for people struggling with specific traumas, like sexual assault or domestic violence. These groups offer safe spaces to share your story and receive appropriate validation and support from others.
You can look for local support groups in:
- Nonprofit mental health agencies.
- Group therapy practices.
- Local hospitals or community health centers.
Some facilitators also host virtual groups. Meeting with people online can be a fantastic option if you live in an area with limited resources. It can also be helpful if your PTSD makes leaving the home challenging.
Medication can help reduce the intensity of PTSD symptoms. It’s also a viable option if you struggle with co-occurring depression or anxiety.
Antidepressants, such as Paxil, Prozac, or Celexa, can help with symptoms related to sadness, apathy, and depression. It can also stabilize sleep and appetite issues. Some people take antidepressants for a short period. Others take them for several years.
Anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax or Valium, can help reduce the anxiety associated with PTSD. They can also be helpful for people struggling with panic attacks or nightmares. These medications can be addictive, so they are considered controlled substances.’ In most cases, they are only prescribed for short-term use.
Healing from PTSD often requires making lifestyle changes to improve your usual routine. Depending on your circumstances, these changes can range from subtle to dramatic.
PTSD responses are often rooted in anxiety. The body essentially fears retraumatization, leaving it in a heightened and vulnerable state.
Mindfulness can be beneficial in helping you feel more present and relaxed in your daily life. Mindfulness skills include deep breathing, guided visualization, and meditation.
Many people struggling with PTSD also struggle with low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Feeling poorly about yourself only reinforces negative feelings.
Positive affirmations can help you remind yourself of your inherent worth. Some people recite certain words or phrases to ground them. Others write them down for reference whenever they need a reminder.
Taking Care of Your Physical Health
The mind and body are intricately connected. It’s essential to prioritize your physical well-being, including eating a healthy diet full of nutritious foods, exercising consistently, getting enough sleep each night, and attending all health screenings.
PTSD can be a complicated disorder, and it can make healing from trauma difficult. If you feel ‘stuck’ in a traumatic event, it’s worth speaking to a professional. You don’t have to ‘tough it out’ or struggle alone. Healing and recovery is possible.