By Benjamin Wright, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Grace Cottage Family Health
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. Considering the shocking, scary, and dangerous pandemic we’ve all been through, this is an appropriate topic for all of us to consider.
I offered some advice on PTSD in a column some years ago, and it bears repeating this month, in recognition of National PTSD Awareness Day, June 27.
Most people think of combat veterans when they hear the term “PTSD,” but the more we learn about this, the more we realize that it affects people from all walks of life.
This psychiatric disorder can occur after surviving or witnessing a life-threatening event, including combat, natural disaster, terrorism, a serious accident, violent crime, physical or sexual assault, or childhood neglect, among others.
PTSD is actually quite common. According to the National Center for PTSD, a program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about six out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. For combat veterans, approximately one in three experiences full-fledged PTSD, and an additional 20 to 25 percent have partial PTSD. Among civilians, women are more likely than men to have PTSD symptoms.
PTSD involves chronic symptoms lasting more than several months. Symptoms are often triggered by sights, sounds, smells, places, or an endless range of uniquely personalized triggers, which may not be recognized or understood by those closest to the one suffering from PTSD. So family and friends of those with PTSD can also benefit from learning more about this disorder.
The signs used to diagnose PTSD are generally grouped into three categories: reliving (flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations, or extreme reactions to memories); avoidance tactics (staying away from people, places and things that are reminders of the event, or from people in general, or feeling emotionally numb); or heightened arousal (being extra irritable and anxious; panic attacks; difficulty concentrating or sleeping; and feeling constantly on guard).
Other symptoms include depression, feeling suicidal, and being unable to complete the tasks of daily living. Alcoholism and drug abuse often are responses to PTSD.
When symptoms are so severe that they interfere with significant relationships, job functioning, or the ability to live a normal life, a mental health professional should be consulted. A trained professional can help to diagnose PTSD, as distinguished from similar reactions caused by other issues. The professional can also help with coping strategies and/or medications.
Because PTSD is a natural reaction to highly stressful, life-threatening events, there is no reason for shame to be involved, but people are often too embarrassed to get help. This is unfortunate because there are techniques that can help to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. Evidence shows that talking about the experiences that gave rise to the symptoms is an important part of PTSD recovery.
PTSD sufferers may also benefit from setting up a comfortable daily routine, so they feel more in control of their lives. It is important to maintain connections with family and friends and to regularly participate in fun, recreational activities. In some cases, these coping strategies are enough to help people with PTSD to recover without any medical or mental health treatment.
Because PTSD has become known as a universal response to trauma, there are now many resources to help those who suffer from PTSD, and they also can help friends and loved ones. Two organizations that provide especially useful information and support are the PTSD Alliance (ptsdalliance.org; 888-436-PTSD/6306), and the National Center for PTSD (ptsd.va.gov).
The two most important things to remember about PTSD are that there is no reason to feel ashamed of the symptoms, and that help is available.
I am happy to meet with anyone who is suffering from this condition. The person with PTSD is not alone and there are proven ways to help relieve the symptoms and suffering caused by PTSD.