Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a potentially debilitating anxiety disorder triggered by exposure to a traumatic experience such as an interpersonal event like physical or sexual assault, exposure to disaster or accidents, combat or witnessing a traumatic event. There are three main clusters of symptoms: firstly, those related to re‐experiencing the event; secondly, those related to avoidance and arousal; and thirdly, the distress and impairment caused by the first two symptom clusters.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
PTSD can occur at any age. It can follow a natural disaster such as a flood or fire, or events such as:
- Domestic abuse
- Prison stay
For example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 may have caused PTSD in some people who were involved, in people who saw the disaster, and in people who lost relatives and friends.
Veterans returning home from a war often have PTSD.
The cause of PTSD is unknown. Psychological, genetic, physical, and social factors are involved. PTSD changes the body’s response to stress. It affects the stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters).
It is not known why traumatic events cause PTSD in some people but not others. Having a history of trauma may increase your risk for getting PTSD after a recent traumatic event.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into three main categories:
1. “Reliving” the event, which disturbs day-to-day activity
- Flashback episodes, where the event seems to be happening again and again
- Repeated upsetting memories of the event
- Repeated nightmares of the event
- Strong, uncomfortable reactions to situations that remind you of the event
- Emotional “numbing,” or feeling as though you don’t care about anything
- Feeling detached
- Being unable to remember important aspects of the trauma
- Having a lack of interest in normal activities
- Showing less of your moods
- Avoiding places, people, or thoughts that remind you of the event
- Feeling like you have no future
- Difficulty concentrating
- Startling easily
- Having an exaggerated response to things that startle you
- Feeling more aware (hypervigilance)
- Feeling irritable or having outbursts of anger
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep
You might feel guilt about the event (including “survivor guilt”). You might also have some of the following symptoms, which are typical of anxiety, stress, and tension:
- Agitation or excitability
- Feeling your heart beat in your chest
Signs and tests
There are no tests that can be done to diagnose PTSD. The diagnosis is made based on certain symptoms.
Your doctor may ask for how long you have had symptoms. This will help your doctor know if you have PTSD or a similar condition called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).
- In PTSD, symptoms are present for at least 30 days.
- In ASD, symptoms will be present for a shorter period of time.
Your doctor may also do mental health exams, physical exams, and blood tests to rule out other illnesses that are similar to PTSD.
On Thursday, watch for Part II of this article, where we will discuss Treatment Options for this condition.
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