What Is PTSD And Who Can Be Affected By It?
By Nadia Khan
Updated May 09, 2019
Reviewer Erika Schad, LCP, CWLC
Unlike many mental illnesses, PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition which is developed or acquired. It is not an illness someone is born with. The American Journal of Psychiatry describes the cause of PTSD as a result of "…the experiencing or witnessing of a stressor event involving death, serious injury or such threat to the self or others in a situation in which the individual felt intense fear, horror, or powerlessness".
For example, being the victim of sexual abuse, fighting in a war, being witness to or the victim of a horrific crime are just a few situations which can lead to developing PTSD. According to PTSD United, approximately 8% of the US population (that works out to almost 25 million people) suffers from PTSD.
While it's expected that after going through a traumatic experience it's normal to have trouble sleeping, feel anxious, sad, scared or have a flashback, in most cases these fears and feelings fade away with time. However, for people suffering with PTSD, the feelings linger for months and years, sometimes getting worse and in some cases never going away.
PTSD was formally known as "shell shock" or "combat fatigue" and known to only affect war veterans. Over time, doctors have come to realize the condition can affect anyone at any time whether it's men, women or children. Some groups however, are more prone to developing the condition than others such as:
- Children who are in foster care;
- Victims of domestic violence and abuse;
- People in the military;
It's important to note, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will suffer from PTSD but it is a possibility. No concrete scientific information is available on why some people develop PTSD and others don't but certain factors can put people more at risk such as:
- The length and type of trauma experienced by the person;
- Previous history of traumatic events and experiences;
- Support during and after the experience;
- Choice of career - for example police officers, military personnel, first responders, fire fighters etc. have a higher risk of developing PTSD than someone who is an artist or a dancer.
- Individual personality and manner of handling the experience;
- Genetics - there is some evidence that certain people are genetically more predisposed to developing PTSD for instance family members who suffer from mental disorders or depression.
Studies also show women are two times more at risk for developing PTSD because women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, rape and violence and because women by nature tend to blame themselves when something bad happens.
For men, military combatants are at high risk for PTSD because of everything they see and suffer through during combat.
Despite these statistics, the bottom line is that anyone can become a victim of trauma and anyone can develop the symptoms of PTSD.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PTSD?
PTSD begins in the brain. When someone feels threatened or they go through a scary experience, the brain responds by releasing stress hormones, giving them a boost of adrenaline and instinctively urging the person to either fight or flee.
With PTSD, the brain continues to believe danger is imminent even though there is no longer a threat. This in turn means stress hormones continue to be released unleashing the symptoms of PTSD. For people who have PTSD, the amygdala (the part of the brain which controls fear and emotion) is more active. Over time, the hippocampus (the part of the brain which controls memories) gets smaller. Seeking treatment for PTSD from the onset is imperative.
PTSD symptoms can show up as early as a month after a traumatic event or can take as long as several years. Symptoms will last for about a month and they can fluctuate over time, sometimes getting better, sometimes getting worse and can be triggered over the smallest, most insignificant of things.
While PTSD symptoms vary from person to person, some common symptoms experienced by people who suffer from PTSD are the following:
- Vivid flashbacks to the traumatic event, feelings of relieving the event;
- Nightmares and unpleasant memories;
- Feeling anxious and nervous, easily startled;
The symptoms of PTSD in children are very similar to the symptoms described above. In addition, they may feel cranky, have trouble sleeping, have trouble staying focused in school and perform poorly. They may lose interest in the things the games and activities that previously brought them joy. It is also normal for children to act out what happened to them in a play setting or make drawings describing the trauma they suffered.
Men and women handle PTSD symptoms a little differently. In women, PTSD symptoms manifest themselves by making them feel vulnerable, anxious and jumpy. Women often have trouble expressing their feelings and emotions and become socially withdrawn, silent and depressed. Women also avoid triggers or anything that reminds them of the trauma they experienced. During a woman's menstrual cycle the PTSD symptoms were significantly more severe.
Symptoms of PTSD in men are angry and aggressive. They are more prone to violent outbursts and tempers and are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. Women can also develop a dependency of drugs and alcohol but the rate is higher in men.
Both sexes are at risk for additional physical effects, such as heart problems, anxiety and digestive disorders, and depression.
WHAT IS COMPLEX PTSD AND WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
When PTSD is the result of systematic or chronic exposure to traumatic events and experiences over a long period of time, as opposed to one single event in time, it is referred to as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Victims of domestic abuse;
- Victims of human trafficking or child abuse;
- Prisoners of war or prisoners in concentration camps;
- Refugees from war torn countries.
Symptoms for C-PTSD are different than the symptoms for PTSD and can include the following:
- Emotional Regulation: having a hard time communicating wishes or expressing emotions, experience depression, thoughts of mutilation and suicide;
- Disassociation: amnesia, feeling a sense of detachment from the experience, feeling as though it happened to someone else;
- Self-Concept: feeling shame, guilt or self-hatred;
- Behavioural Control: explosion of anger, demonstrating aggression;
- Attachment: lack of trust in others, being isolated.
People who suffer from Complex PTSD run a higher risk of being victimized repeatedly and typically demonstrate significant personality disturbances. Since a traditional PTSD diagnosis does not include these additional symptoms, Complex PTSD can be mistaken for other disorders such as a Borderline or Masochistic Personality Disorder.
Mental health professionals are encouraged to dig deeper during their assessment to determine whether the patient has PTSD or C-PTSD and most importantly to never blame the patients for anything. Patients in turn are encouraged to speak openly and honestly about their difficulties.
The treatment for C-PTSD is very similar to treating PTSD, with one key distinction. Therapy and counselling for C-PTSD often focuses on empowering the victim and giving them back control of their life or setting them free emotionally from their trap.
HOW IS PTSD DIAGNOSED?
PTSD is not always diagnosed or recognized for what it is right away. After suffering through a traumatic event, most people assume it's normal to feel a little out of sorts. They usually wait for the sad feelings to go away and for life to return to normal. It sometimes takes time to establish a link between what happened six months ago and what they are feeling right now.
But when feelings persist and linger, people will bring it up with their doctor who will first do a physical evaluation to rule out other causes or medical conditions. Next they'll conduct a psychological evaluation and a diagnosis will be made based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
It is also possible to do a self test by filling out a self reported questionnaire (PTSD Symptom Scale). The questionnaire contains 17 items and a score of 13 or higher means it is more than likely that PTSD is present.
While there is no real way of curing PTSD, it can be managed and treated very successfully through a combination of medication and therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. A physician may prescribe antidepressants and suggest counselling in person or online.
Medicine is usually recommended for a short period of time to get the person back on their feet, a greater emphasis is placed on therapy. However, in serious cases like depression, medication is used for a longer period. Sometimes the symptoms go away forever while in other cases, the symptoms diminish considerably.
While PTSD is be a very crippling illness and can affect every aspect of someone's life, professionally, personally, socially, with proper treatment and help, it is a disorder which can be controlled and the affected individual can go on to lead a very successful, fulfilling life.
Group therapy and support groups are very beneficial, especially for little children or teens who are trying to understand what's happening to them. It also helps them realize they're not alone in dealing with PTSD.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and you've been suffering from any of the symptoms mentioned above, take a look through the PTSD Checklist and make an appointment with your family doctor or health care professional as soon as you can. Communicate your feelings with them and get the help you need to get your life back on track.
If you are having any kind of suicidal thoughts or fear you might want to harm yourself, reach out to a friend, a family member, explain what you're feeling. You can also get in touch with the local authorities or get yourself to a hospital right away.
Help is always there for when you need it.