How to recognize symptoms of PTSD and get help
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition some people develop after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events that are dangerous, shocking, or scary. These events can include things like a natural disaster, accident, war, personal assault, abuse, an extended illness, bullying, and other stressful events.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 1 in 11 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD can affect people of all ages, although women are more likely to experience it.
What are the 5 signs of PTSD?
People who have PTSD continue to feel frightened or stressed even when the traumatic event has passed, and they are no longer in danger. The five most common signs and symptoms of PTSD include:
- Reliving the traumatic event. Having intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares about the event is a common experience among people who have PTSD. Memories of the traumatic event can be very vivid, feel real, and repeat again and again.
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma. Staying away from anything that's reminding you of the trauma — people, places, activities — is common. Not thinking or talking about it is also common. Blocked memories can also occur, making it hard to remember certain aspects of the traumatic event.
- Negative or isolating thoughts and feelings. PTSD can cause you to feel anger, guilt, and shame. You might also blame yourself for what happened. Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy or no longer spending time with friends and family can also happen.
- Feeling constantly on edge. After a fearful experience, you might be easily startled, feel irritable, depressed, or have outbursts. You may also have trouble sleeping or concentrating. Feeling overly suspicious of people or surroundings isn't uncommon, and some people may engage in unhealthy coping skills, such as consuming alcohol or drugs, to help them deal with their symptoms.
- Experiencing long-term symptoms. The symptoms of PTSD can last for a long time after the traumatic event for months or even years. Long-term PTSD can be harmful to both physical and mental health.
How PTSD affects the body
When you feel scared, nervous, or stressed about something, your body quickly releases stress hormones. This is called the "fight-or-flight" response, which helps keep you safe from danger. It can also be help you accomplish a difficult task or get through a tough situation. This type of stress reaction is usually short-lived and not harmful.
Examples of stressful events or situations that may cause a temporary fight-or-flight response include:
- Getting ready for a physical challenge
- Giving a speech
- Having a heated argument with someone
- Hearing a loud, unexpected noise
- Taking an exam
Even though you feel scared or worried at first, those feelings should disappear soon after the event passes. However, if you go through a very scary, traumatic, or dangerous event, it's normal to continue experiencing some mental health problems when it's over, but you should start to feel better in time as your body recovers on its own. It can also be helpful to share your feelings with a close friend.
But sometimes you can't recover on your own. PTSD can disrupt the neurotransmitters that transmit important chemical signals between your nerve cells. If PTSD symptoms last for more than a month and make it hard for you to do normal, everyday tasks, you should seek help from a qualified mental health provider. PTSD can be treated, and many people with PTSD go on to lead happy, healthy lives.
Treating symptoms of PTSD
Treatment for PTSD has been proven to work and help people feel safe again. If one particular treatment doesn't work, a combination of treatments could be the key to recovering from PTSD.
Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, is considered one of the most effective treatments for PTSD. Talking with a qualified provider about what happened to you, known as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), involves working with a mental health provider to change negative thoughts and behaviors related to the traumatic event. TF-CBT can help you identify and challenge negative thoughts and feelings related to the trauma and learn coping skills to manage symptoms.
Other treatments for PTSD include:
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — EMDR is another effective treatment for PTSD that involves focusing on a traumatic memory while a provider directs your eye movements. This therapy can help you process the memory in a new way, which can reduce the intensity of the emotional response.
- Medication — Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can be very helpful for reducing the symptoms of PTSD. These medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain, which can help reduce anxiety and improve mood so you can get back to doing things you enjoy.
- Service dogs — Specially trained PTSD dogs have helped many people struggling with PTSD symptoms feel better. These dogs know how to recognize when you're feeling stressed and may apply gentle pressure to your body when you feel anxious. If you're having a flashback, they can nudge you as a way to distract you from the distressing memory.
If you have PTSD, it's also important to take care of your physical health. Try to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat a balanced diet. Of course, these things might be difficult to achieve when you're coping with PTSD, making it all the more important to seek help. In addition to finding a good therapist, your primary care provider is an excellent resource who can help you adopt healthy lifestyle habits.
PTSD is a serious condition that can affect your everyday life, but it's treatable, and the sooner you get treatment, the sooner you'll start feeling better.
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, request an appointment
with one of our experienced mental health providers. At Reid Health, we're right