7 Important Things To Know About PTSD

by Caitlin Flynn

June is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month, so there's no time like the present to educate yourself on the mental health condition that will affect approximately 7.8 percent of Americans at some point in their lives. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD, but many do. And as with any mental illness, cases of PTSD range from mild to severe.

PTSD is diagnosed when someone experiences three types of symptoms for at least one month: flashbacks, avoidance, and hyperarousal (a state of increased tension and anxiety). PTSD sufferers may experience a wide variety of other symptoms, too, including intense flashbacks, nightmares, depression, detachment, and emotional numbness. But the one common thread among all PTSD sufferers — whether you were sexually assaulted, involved in a horrific car accident, or witnessed an act of terrorism — is that you lived through a terrible event that was out of your control, and left you feeling helpless. This feeling of helplessness is one of the things that makes PTSD so undeniably difficult to live with.

But the good news is that PTSD can be treated, typically through a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and the support of loved ones. The recovery process isn't easy, though; it can be painful and mentally taxing, and requires you to discuss memories and emotions that you would much prefer to bury. While treatment can certainly not erase the past and the memories will always exist, the flashbacks and hyper-vigilance can subside and you will be able to resume your day-to-day life with the peace and happiness you deserve. Most importantly, you'll be able to embrace the present and look forward to the future.

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, here are seven important things to know:

1. PTSD Has Many Different Causes

PTSD was first brought into the public consciousness after doctors observed some of the symptoms exhibited by war veterans who returned from Vietnam. The American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. We now know that the illness can be caused by a wide range of events, including but not limited to: sexual assault, physical abuse, domestic violence, natural disasters, and car accidents. Witnessing a violent act can also cause PTSD — for example, if a child witnesses their parent being abused, they can develop the disorder, despite not being directly abused themselves. Typically, a PTSD sufferer continues to live in a state of psychological shock and is unable to process the associated emotions of fear and helplessness, long after the event that triggered their state has passed.

If an individual experiences symptoms in each of the below three categories for at least one month, they can be diagnosed with PTSD:

Re-Experiencing: This category includes flashbacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, and feelings of extreme distress when reminded of the traumatic event.

Avoidance: Symptoms in this group include detachment, inability to connect with loved ones, avoidance of any place or activity that reminds you of the trauma, and gaps in memory pertaining to the trauma.

Hyperarousal: These symptoms include severe anxiety, being easily startled, sleep disturbances, and inability to let your guard down.

2. People With PTSD Are More Likely To Develop Other Illnesses

It's common for individuals suffering from PTSD to develop other health conditions — most commonly depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Nearly half of individuals with PTSD also exhibit symptoms of depression. In an understandable attempt to self-medicate, 50 percent of PTSD sufferers develop a dependence on alcohol and 30 percent grapple with drug addiction. Eating disorders are also often linked to trauma — they can make PTSD-afflicted individuals feel a sense of power. And, like anyone who is under immense stress, PTSD sufferers are more prone to chronic pain and physical illnesses.

3. Women Are More Likely To Develop PTSD Than Men

Although women are slightly less likely to experience a traumatic event than men, females are twice as likely to develop PTSD. This is because the traumas most commonly experienced by women — specifically, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other physical abuse — are more intimate and personal, and thus, more likely to lead to post-traumatic stress. Because of factors like cultural conditioning, women also more likely to blame themselves for their traumatic experience.

4. PTSD Is Not A Sign Of Weakness

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. But this doesn't mean those who do are weak or wallowing in self-pity. Just as some people have a genetic predisposition to develop depression, addiction, or certain physical illnesses, certain individual have a genetic makeup that makes them more vulnerable to PTSD. If someone is already struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness, he or she is more likely to develop PTSD.

Other risk factors include having family members with mental health issues, having a prior history of trauma, the severity and length of the traumatic event, and the amount of emotional support received immediately after the trauma. Individuals who have been subjected to repetitive abuse (i.e. domestic violence or ongoing sexual abuse) are also more likely to develop PTSD.

5. PTSD Can Make It Hard To Live Your Life

Being in the throes of severe PTSD can feel a lot like drowning with no life raft in sight. Flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, shame, and hyper-vigilance are often constant companions for sufferers. The illness can make it extremely difficult to function on a day-to-day basis, and sufferers are more likely to have problems in the workplace and school, and to struggle with trust and interpersonal relationships. It's hard to develop trusting relationships with PTSD, and even the most stable existing relationships can be negatively impacted. Survivors may feel numb and detached from their loved ones, even when friends and family are supportive. Since one of PTSD's prime symptoms is avoidance and loss of interest in activities, sufferers may isolate and prefer to be alone. If the trauma involved someone the victim trusted (such as acquaintance rape or partner violence), it can be extremely difficult to continue trusting others close to them. This can be hurtful to family and friends who just want to help, but if someone you love has PTSD, remember that their distance isn't personal. The most important thing is to be patient and to let your loved one know that you are always there to listen when they're ready to talk.

6. Getting Help Is Key To Recovery

After experiencing trauma, anyone can be expected to be out of sorts (to say the least). But since not everyone develops PTSD, it can't be officially diagnosed until symptoms have persisted for at least a month. So if you are experiencing any of the symptoms previously noted, it is extremely important that you seek professional and personal help as soon as possible. A good therapist and psychiatrist are a must, and there are many mental health professionals who specialize in trauma.

There are a number of effective treatment techniques for PTSD (including EMDR, cognitive behavior therapy, and group therapy) and it may take time to find the right therapist and the right treatment track for you. It's important to find a therapist you click with and trust — this will make it easier to open up to them and follow their advice. Therapists can help you develop coping strategies for the flashbacks and regain a sense of control. The cognitive patterns typical of the disorder (such as self-blame and paranoia in ordinary situations) can be slowly but surely reversed through talk therapy. As you begin to utilize your new coping skills and adjust your thought patterns, your quality of life will improve.

In addition to therapy, medication can also be beneficial. The medications Zoloft and Paxil have been approved by the FDA for PTSD treatment and short-term use of benzodiazepines can help ease the anxiety and hyper-vigilance symptoms as you work to develop effective coping strategies in therapy.

The support of friends is also a huge help. The shame associated with traumas such as sexual assault and violence makes many people reluctant to tell friends about what they're going through. But any true friend will want to be there for you and support you unconditionally — so tell your friends in your own time and your own way. They'll be glad you told them — your openness will help them help you. HelpGuide offers comprehensive information about understanding and helping a loved one with PTSD.

7. Recovery Is Possible (And It's Worth The Hard Work)

A diagnosis of PTSD does not equal a life sentence of flashbacks, fear, and unhappiness. Approximately 80 percent of PTSD sufferers will recover, so the difficult process of opening up about your experience will pay off. You'll likely experience many ups and downs during the recovery process, and there will be times when you want to give up. But the most important thing to remember is that you don't want the illness to win. Be stubborn and fight back. You have a life to live, and there are so many opportunities out there for you to seize.

Although the memories will always be a part of your history, recovered individuals are able to look back on the trauma without experiencing extreme distress. Better yet, they reach the point where they're not thinking constantly thinking about the trauma, and can instead go back to focusing on all the wonderful things life has to offer. They are also able to once again connect with loved ones and successfully engage in academic and professional pursuits. The best part of recovering from PTSD is that you no longer feel chained to the past and hopeless about the future. Feelings of self-blame and shame can be replaced by empowerment and pride — because you possessed the strength to not only survive an unthinkable event, but to move forward, into a future not defined by your trauma.

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