Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric disorder that may occur following a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, terrorist incident, military combat, violent personal assault or a serious accident.
People suffering from PTSD may experience nightmares or flashbacks, have trouble sleeping, or feel detached from life in general. Left untreated, post traumatic stress disorder can lead to further problems, including depression, alcohol or drug abuse, marital and other personal relationship problems, as well as possible job loss.
The History of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Historical medical literature reveals a psychiatric condition, with symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder, dating back to the United States Civil War. Combat veterans of World War II and Holocaust survivors were also documented as having suffered from PTSD-like symptoms.
The term, post traumatic stress disorder, was coined in 1980 as research into the condition began in earnest following the Vietnam War. PTSD has been observed in those involved in the Persian Gulf War and in United Nations peacekeeping forces deployed to other war zones.
Post traumatic stress disorder is not limited to war veterans. It can affect men and women, adults and children, from Western and non-Western cultural groups of all social and economic backgrounds.
How Common is PTSD?
It is estimated that 7.8 percent of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. During any given year, 3.6 percent of U.S. adults, ages 18-54 (5.2 million people), suffer from PTSD. Women are twice as likely as men to develop post traumatic stress disorder. Men and women who have spent time in war zones have a 30 percent likelihood of experiencing PTSD.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children
Some children will develop PTSD following a terrorist attack or other traumatic event. Information collected following the 1995 Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building attack revealed the following:
- Children who lost a friend or relative were more likely to exhibit symptoms of PTSD than children not directly affected by the attack.
- Two years after the bombing, 16 percent of children who lived approximately 100 miles away from Oklahoma City exhibited PTSD symptoms. None of these children had been directly exposed to the trauma or knew any of those killed or injured in the attack.
If your child or adolescent exhibits severe or prolonged reactions to a traumatic event, you may need to seek assistance from a mental health counselor. Referrals to counselors with experience working with children as well as trauma survivors can be obtained through the American Psychological Association.
Recognizing Stress Reactions vs. Symptoms
Normal stress reactions following a traumatic event may last for several days to a few weeks. However, severe stress symptoms persist and can lead to lasting post traumatic stress disorder, if left untreated.
Normal Stress Reactions
- Emotional reactions: shock, grief, fear or anger
- Cognitive reactions: worry, indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating, or memory loss
- Physical reactions: fatigue, insomnia, tension, changes in appetite or sex drive
- Interpersonal reactions: work or school problems, distrust of others or social isolation
Severe Stress Symptoms
- Reoccurring nightmares or flashbacks
- Panic attacks, extreme agitation or irritability
- Amnesia or other forms of dissociation
- Severe anxiety or feelings of helplessness
- Severe depression or feelings of worthlessness
Treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
The test approach for treating PTSD is often a combination of medication and some form of psychotherapy or counseling. For additional information on these treatments visit the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
How to Get Help
- Contact your family physician about treatment and ask for a recommended psychiatrist.
- If you work for a large company or organization, contact the Human Resources Department and ask if they provide mental health services for employees.
- If you are a U.S. Veteran, contact your nearest VA Medical Center or on the web visit www.vetcenter.va.gov/.
- If you are a victim of crime, call the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL for a listing of more that 6,700 community service agencies located throughout the country.
For Additional Information:
American Psychological Association
The information in this article is based on “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: From Terror to Trauma“, presented October 7, 2003 at The Ohio State University Mini Med School, and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2007.
For more information:
Go to the Anxiety and Stress Disorders health topic.