Is It A PTSD Attack? Knowing The Signs And Symptoms
Updated August 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell
Once relegated to the annals of wartime histories and considered a plague specific to individuals who have seen or fought in the war, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an increasingly common problem and one that does not require a history of military service or presence in a war-torn country. Instead, PTSD is being recognized as an issue plaguing adults and children alike, with causes ranging from a traumatic event recognized by almost everyone (seeing a loved one die, for instance), to a more covert traumatic event, such as a case of narcissistic abuse. Regardless of the exact trigger or traumatic event at the core of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a treatable disorder, and individuals who have been diagnosed are not alone in their experiences.
What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that comes as a result of a traumatic event. It can be a uniquely presenting disorder, as it may not show symptoms immediately, but may have a delayed onset. In some cases, a traumatic event will spark an immediate onset of symptoms. While the most well-known causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder include war, extreme violence, natural disasters, and fatal or extremely harmful accidents, these are not the only known causes of PTSD; PTSD can develop as a result of any traumatic event, though violence is the most common cause.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a personality disorder, but an anxiety disorder. PTSD can be the sole diagnosis, or PTSD can be classified as Complex PTSD, wherein a traumatic event is not a one-time occurrence, but is a regular or ongoing source of trauma. Although Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not currently have its own diagnosis in the DSM, it is increasingly being recognized as a potential manifestation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In either case, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is usually treated with a multi-layered approach, involving talk or trauma therapy, medication, and lifestyle alterations, all of which can help alleviate symptoms and provide individuals with a PTSD diagnosis with some relief from PTSD symptoms and the issues related to the diagnosis, including difficulty in work, school, and relationships. The traumatic event is not the only aspect of the condition that requires treatment; the human body develops a myriad of issues in response to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and these issues may also require intervention.
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
The symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are vast, and the disorder looks different for each individual affected. That being said, there are clusters of PTSD symptoms that consistently arise in individuals with the disorder, and these PTSD symptoms include (but are not limited to):
- Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are characterized by flashbacks or uncontrolled focusing on unpleasant feelings, sensations, or images. These thoughts may focus specifically on the traumatic event that triggered the disorder (the scene of a car accident, for instance), or may involve other fears or concerns.
- Avoidant Behavior
Individuals with PTSD might feel as though they must avoid certain places, thoughts, or people. Someone who was assaulted in their home, for instance, might struggle to live in that space. Someone who was mugged may compulsively avoid the street on which they experienced the traumatic event. Some individuals with PTSD might even avoid certain songs, conversation topics, or news sites as a means of coping.
- Reactive Behavior
Reactive behavior is described as any type of behavior involving compulsive or uncontrolled outbursts. This looks different depending on the traumatic event that preceded PTSD but can include things such as explosive anger, unwarranted fear, being unable to relax, or having a heightened scare response.
- Increased Arousal Symptoms (Hyper Arousal)
Similarly, individuals with PTSD may present with intense arousal symptoms. These individuals might struggle to sleep, relax, or function in daily life, due to a state of hyperarousal, wherein even a small sound feels deafening, or a simple gesture feels threatening.
- Uncharacteristically Negative Feelings
Perhaps one of the most commonly ignored symptoms of PTSD is a general feeling of discomfort or malaise. Negative feelings might manifest as low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness or despair, or simply feeling “jaded” or highly critical.
PTSD symptoms are present during PTSD attacks, but an attack is a distinct entity because it is a heightened and overwhelming “attack” of PTSD and general panic symptoms. When experienced without PTSD, these types of attacks are usually labeled “anxiety attacks” or “panic attacks.” Attack symptoms may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart
- Feeling out of control (mentally or physically)
- Feeling as though you are going to die
The symptoms of a panic attack can mimic the symptoms of many other ailments, including an asthma attack, a heart attack, or a stroke, which causes additional distress to individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD attacks, themselves, may exacerbate PTSD, as they add a new layer of fear and concern, and may make people with PTSD feel as though they are not safe to go outside or carry out everyday tasks. Although these attacks do not usually last long – anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours – they can be overwhelming and frightening each time they occur, and they may necessitate additional steps in treatment, as attacks are not central to the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
What Is the Difference Between PTSD Symptoms and an Attack?
PTSD symptoms are ongoing, while an attack is a specific, acute issue, which may come and go for an individual with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD attacks can mirror the symptoms of panic attacks, and as a result, may feel similar to a heart attack, asthma attack, or other biologically based concern. The greatest difference between an attack and symptoms of PTSD is duration: PTSD symptoms arise and persist, while an attack is usually limited to a matter of minutes or hours. The effects of both, however, are painful and can cause significant distress.
Not all individuals with PTSD symptoms will experience regular panic attacks; some will only experience the ongoing symptoms of PTSD. Nevertheless, panic attacks are not uncommon alongside a diagnosis of PTSD, and treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may include treatment for anxiety attacks. Additional treatment steps can be undertaken as well, such as learning how to recognize the onset of an attack, and how to remain grounded and aware for the duration of an attack.
Why Is It Important to Know Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders?
Having a PTSD attack can be frightening. It can feel as though you are reliving the cause of PTSD, or it can feel as though you are having a heart attack or stroke. Knowing the most common signs and symptoms can offer some relief in the midst of an attack and can help ground you while the symptoms persist. Being able to ground yourself in the midst of an attack can help it pass more quickly and easily, and consistently bringing yourself back into the present can help ease some of the anxiety surrounding having an attack. After all, it is often not only the attack itself that causes distress, but also the anxiety leading up to the attack.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of PTSD anxiety attacks is an empowering step in treating the disorder. Because panic attacks are often accompanied by feelings of being out of control or in imminent danger, learning to mitigate these attacks or simply anticipate their arrival can help many people with PTSD feel as though they have greater control of their life, and soothe some of the difficulty involved in living with PTSD and undergoing PTSD therapy.
Finding Help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD Treatment
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real illness, and it can heavily interfere with living life, and carrying out day-to-day tasks. Treatment may be mild, such as weekly therapy meetings, or may require a handful of steps, including lifestyle alterations, medication, and ongoing therapy. To secure a diagnosis and begin treatment, there are many options available. In-person therapy allows you to visit an office and attend sessions with someone you can see and hear, or online therapy allows you to visit with a therapist and secure treatment from the comfort and safety of your home. Whether you prefer in-office therapy through a local psychologist or prefer the familiarity of an online therapist, such as those found through BetterHelp, PTSD is a treatable illness, and regular, ongoing therapy can help ease many of the symptoms of PTSD, in order to move forward and live life to the fullest.
Although PTSD symptoms can be overwhelming, it is not tantamount to a life sentence to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a treatable disorder, and many individuals suffering from PTSD go on to recover and lead healthy, long lives. When seeking relief from PTSD symptoms and attacks, learning how your body and mind cope can be invaluable, as it allows you to more accurately predict when attacks are coming, and offers a greater sense of control and safety. Finding a practitioner who is able to guide you through any of the necessary steps – whether that includes therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of the three – is typically the first step in recovery.