Some events are so traumatic that the intense feelings of horror and fear that they evoke can be difficult to overcome even after the experience is over. Such events may include being the victim of a violent crime, serving in a war or witnessing a disaster.
Most people who live through an event like this need some time to cope and recover. However, if more than a month has passed and memories of the event still trigger significant horror and interfere with daily tasks or relationships, the person may have an anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress symptoms can generally be divided into three categories:
- Avoidance Behaviors: The PTSD sufferer may go to great lengths to avoid anything that brings back memories of the event, including avoiding activities that were once pleasurable. Feeling emotionally numb and depressed are also categorized as avoidance symptoms of PTSD.
- Hyperarousal: Hyperarousal is a state of increased anxiety and tension. These symptoms may include jumpiness, insomnia, uneasiness and irritability.
- Recurring Memories: This category includes nightmares about the event, flashbacks or simply memories that are involuntarily replayed in the mind.
In order to be associated with PTSD, the person’s symptoms must be present for longer than four weeks following the traumatic event that triggered the disorder.
Treatment for PTSD
Many sufferers of PTSD find their symptoms lessen significantly within a few weeks after starting treatment. Treatment typically includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy.
The most commonly prescribed medications for PTSD are antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs called “benzodiazepines.” These medications help patients cope with their anxiety and improve their mood. If symptoms include disturbing dreams about the traumatic event, the patient’s physician may prescribe a drug called “prazosin” to suppress those dreams by blocking the release of adrenaline.
Several different kinds of psychotherapy have been shown to be effective for PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to help patients recognize the thought patterns that lead to anxiety. They learn to redirect their thoughts and prevent themselves from reacting to the anxiety. Another kind of therapy, called exposure therapy, requires the patient to confront reminders of the traumatic event in a safe, controlled environment. The patient then learns how to cope with these reminders without reliving the event.
PTSD can be avoided if symptoms of anxiety following a traumatic experience are treated early. Cases of stress disorder in which the patient’s triggering event occurred less than one month ago are classified as acute stress disorder. Acute stress disorder often progresses into PTSD if left untreated.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/DS00246.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml.
Nichols, M. (2008). PTSD: Post traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from http://anxietypanichealth.com/reference/ptsd-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/.