What is PTSD?
After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men. But any event, or series of events, that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered, can trigger PTSD—especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.
PTSD can affect people who personally experience the traumatic event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma. Whatever the cause for your PTSD, by seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills, you can learn to manage your symptoms, reduce painful memories, and move on with your life.
What causes PTSD?
When you experience a stressful event, your nervous system reacts with the fight-or-flight response. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and winds back down to its normal state.
PTSD occurs when you experience too much stress in a situation. Even though the danger has passed, your nervous system is “stuck,” unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event. Recovering from PTSD involves helping your nervous system become “unstuck” so you can heal and move on from the trauma.
PTSD vs. a normal response to traumatic events Following a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, traffic accident, terrorist attack, or assault, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel unbalanced, disconnected, or numb. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. These are normal reactions to abnormal events. For most people, however, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift. But if you have post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms don’t decrease and you don’t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone’s nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell.
While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are four main types of symptoms.
Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, or intense mental or physical reactions when reminded of the trauma.
Avoidance and numbing, such as avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, being unable to remember aspects of the ordeal, a loss of interest in activities and life in general, feeling emotionally numb and detached from others and a sense of a limited future.
Hyperarousal, including sleep problems, irritability, hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”), feeling jumpy or easily startled, angry outbursts, and aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior.
Negative thought and mood changes like feeling alienated and alone, difficulty concentrating or remembering, depression and hopelessness, feeling mistrust and betrayal, and feeling guilt, shame, or self-blame.