Post-traumatic stress syndrome (also known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that occurs when a person is unable to mentally recover from a horrific ordeal and experiences recurrent flashbacks, nightmares and upsetting memories of the event.
In many cases, the symptoms of PTSD are so severe that they interfere with daily life, sometimes leading to substance abuse, depression and other anxiety disorders. The good news is that PTSD is usually treatable with medication or therapy.
Causes of PTSD
PTSD is caused by a traumatic event that a person either witnessed or experienced. The event is deeply frightening and often involves bodily harm, either threatened or actual. The following may be causes of PTSD:
- Assault, especially with a weapon
- Childhood neglect, or physical or sexual abuse
- Natural disasters
Post-traumatic stress syndrome is marked by intrusive memories, avoidance behavior and hyper-arousal.
Intrusive memories are the most well-known PTSD symptoms. They often involve vivid, upsetting flashbacks to the traumatic event, or frightening nightmares.
Avoidance behavior is marked by a tendency to steer clear of situations that are reminiscent of the trauma. PTSD sufferers may also feel emotionally closed off and detached from loved ones, and may have memory problems or trouble concentrating.
Hyper-arousal is a near-constant state of being on high alert, even in safe situations. People with PTSD may be excessively jumpy and irritable, and they may have trouble sleeping.
Prevention of PTSD
Prevention of PTSD is not easy. Because everyone responds to stress differently, it’s hard to predict who will develop PTSD. However, you may be at increased risk of PTSD if:
- The trauma was particularly intense or long-lasting
- You already have a mental illness
- You have close relatives with PTSD or depression
- You lack a strong support network.
Early treatment is essential in mitigating symptoms of PTSD and preventing long-term health complications.
Scientists have studied PTSD for several decades in hopes of developing a prevention treatment, but have yet to discover one. Some evidence, however, indicates that exposure therapy may help people cope with PTSD. In exposure therapy, people with PTSD are exposed to the original trauma in some way, which helps them confront their feelings about the event and learn to cope. A study published in Journal Watch Psychiatry (2008) found that this approach was an effective PTSD treatment if it occurred soon after the original event.
A study conducted by Sackler Medical School at Tel Aviv University (2008) found that injecting trauma survivors with cortisol shortly after trauma may prevent PTSD. Cortisol is a stress hormone; levels of cortisol peak after a frightening event, but eventually return to normal. However, in some cases, the brain doesn’t release enough cortisol, which may contribute to PTSD. Studies conducted in animals seemed to indicate that injecting extra cortisol may help regulate the brain’s functionality and prevent PTSD.
Cortisol injections are still being researched as a strategy for preventing PTSD. In the meantime, therapy and medication after a trauma can be helpful in preventing PTSD or mitigating PTSD symptoms.
Dubovsky, S. (2008). An evidence-based approach to preventing PTSD. Retrieved May 14, 2010, from psychiatry.jwatch.org/cgi/content/full/2008/811/1.
Mayo Clinic. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved May 19, 2010, from www.mayoclinic.com/health/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/ds00246.
Nauert, R. (2008). New treatment may prevent PTSD. Retrieved May 14, 2010, from psychcentral.com/news/2008/12/02/new-treatment-may-prevent-ptsd/3428.html.