Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Who Is Vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

by Kalinda Rose Stevenson

The Truth about PTSD

People often think of post-traumatic stress disorder as a condition that primarily afflicts soldiers in combat zones.

The truth of PTSD is that no one is immune to the effects of traumatic events and experiences that can lead to life-long psychological, mental, and physical health problems.

For example, children in abusive families don’t get much attention as victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. The symptoms and the behaviors of children experiencing PTSD can be different from the symptoms in adults, but the traumatizing effects are very real, and can endure for a lifetime if not recognized and treated.

 Keep reading to find out how post-traumatic stress disorder affects many lives.

man with ptsd

After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade and you feel stuck with a constant sense of danger and painful memories, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can seem like you’ll never get over what happened or feel normal again. But by seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you can overcome PTSD and move on with your life.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless.

Most people associate PTSD with battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men—but any seemingly life-threatening event—or series of events—that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.

PTSD can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma.

Veterans with PTSD

If you’re a veteran suffering from PTSD or combat stress, there are steps you can take to begin the recovery process and deal with your symptoms.

Traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Car or plane crashes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden death of a loved one
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Childhood neglect
Or any shattering, disabling event that leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless

The difference between PTSD and a normal response to trauma

When your sense of safety and trust are shattered by a traumatic event, it’s normal for the mind and body to be in shock. It’s common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. For most people, these symptoms gradually lift over time. But this normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when the symptoms don’t ease up and your nervous system gets “stuck” and fails to recover its equilibrium.

The latest research shows that the brain has three ways of regulating the nervous system and responding to stressful events:

  • Social engagement is the most evolved strategy for keeping yourself feeling calm and safe. Socially interacting with another person—making eye contact, listening in an attentive way, talking—can quickly calm you down and put the brakes on defensive responses like “fight-or-flight.”
  • Mobilization, or the fight-or-flight response, occurs when social engagement isn’t appropriate and you need to either defend yourself or escape the danger at hand—such as in a natural disaster. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina and speed your reaction time. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system then calms the body, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
  • Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of stress in a situation and, while the immediate danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its pre-stress state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. This is PTSD.

Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. There are three main types of symptoms and they can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event
  2. Avoiding reminders of the trauma
  3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

Symptoms of PTSD: Re-experiencing the traumatic event

  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
  • Nightmares (either of the event or other frightening things)
  • Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

Symptoms of PTSD: Avoidance and numbing

  • Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

Symptoms of PTSD: Increased anxiety and emotional arousal

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
  • Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Physical aches and pains

Symptoms of PTSD in children and adolescents

In children—especially those who are very young—the symptoms of PTSD can be different than those in adults. Symptoms in children include:

  • Fear of being separated from parent
  • Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
  • Sleep problems and nightmares without recognizable content
  • Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
  • New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
  • Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
  • Aches and pains with no apparent cause
  • Irritability and aggression.

Read more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes and risk factors at HelpGuide.

[Original Post October 6, 2015]

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