PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder or post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) is the name used to describe a range of symptoms that may develop after a person has experienced a traumatic event. It is frequently a delayed response.
Listening to or watching the news of horrific events, (the World Trade Centre, the London bombings, Hillsborough football stadium), may have a lasting effect on you. However; if you are actually there during an incident of this nature it is quite possible that you could become very distressed. If you are involved in, or present at events like road accidents and sexual or physical assaults, they can also cause you significant emotional problems. These emotional problems can interfere with normal life.
There is no time limit on the development of post-traumatic symptoms. They can surface many years after the traumatic event.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Typical symptoms of PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder will include some of the following:
Reliving aspects of the traumatic event
- Having vivid flashbacks that feel like the trauma is happening again.
- Getting intrusive thoughts and images of the event
- Repetitive nightmares
- Significant distress at any reminder of the trauma.
Avoiding memories of the traumatic event
- By keeping busy
- By avoiding all situations that may remind you of the event
- By repressing/suppressing memories of aspects of the trauma
- Becoming detached, cutting yourself off from family and friends
- Feeling unable to give affection to loved ones – emotionally numb
- Believing planning for the future is pointless
- Turning to alcohol or drugs to block out painful feelings and memories
Being easily upset or angry
- Having disturbed sleep
- Being constantly irritability and aggressive
- Having a lack of concentration
- Feeling very alert most or all of the time
- Being easily startled – jumpy and on edge
- Having panic symptoms towards anything remotely connected to the trauma
These are very normal reactions to a trauma but for most people the symptoms die away in a short period of time. This is not classed as PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder . However; if they last for more than a month or if they are extreme you could have PTSD.
You can develop other symptoms – severe generalised anxiety, a phobia, depression, dissociative disorder and suicidal feelings.
What causes PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder ?
PTSD was first used by the American to describe symptoms being suffered by veterans of the Vietnam War. PTSD has existed for a lot longer – as long as humans have been suffering trauma. During the First World War soldiers suffered from shell shock, soldier’s heart or battle fatigue. Now this would be called PTSD or combat stress.
The term PTSD is used to describe psychological trauma resulting from any traumatic event.
There are literally thousands of traumatic events which may cause PTSD:
- Personal trauma – such as a fall from a window or burnt in a fire
- Violent crime – stabbing, shooting or mugging
- Sexual assault – as a child or adult
- Physical assault – in the home, child or adult
- Road traffic accidents – crashes or knocked down/run over
- Difficulties in childbirth.
These can all produce PTSD, though symptoms may be delayed in onset. Children and adults who have witnessed something horrific can develop PTSD.
You may experience PTSD if you have lost friends or family in a disaster or if you are in the emergency services or a rescue worker.
Why do some people develop PTSD when others don’t?
It is possible that up to 3% of the general population will be affected by PTSD. In theory anyone can develop PTSD but not everyone does – about 97% do not. Those that do develop it do not all have it to the same degree. Why? There are several possible reasons:
Fearing for your life
Being involved in events in which other people died and/or the person thought they were going to die. These situations may cause PTSD. This is linked to the next reason.
Human originating disasters – deliberate acts of violence, terrorism or war. Exploitation of other people by violence. All of these appear to cause long lasting and deeply painful emotional symptoms – sometimes worse than natural disasters. These experiences destroy people’s ability to trust others, especially if the event involves someone they trusted or loved.
When people stay conscious during the whole experience they are more likely to develop PTSD. The traumatic memories are etched in the memory, (sometimes called Flashbulb Memories), but those who are unconsciousness or suffered major head injury are far less likely to have PTSD.
If a new traumatic event triggers dormant memories of an earlier ‘forgotten’ experience the effect can be so much worse. (Raped as a child; this memory being repressed and ‘forgotten’ and then raped again as an adult).
If you are already going through major emotional problems when the new event occurs you are also much more likely to develop PTSD.
Survivors of trauma often feel guilty as if they were responsible for the traumatic incident. They often feel they could have done more to save others who died. It is believed that those who blame themselves in some way are more at risk of severe and long-term PTSD.
Dealing with a traumatic event
People can feel numb, shocked, dazed or disorientated after a traumatic event. Talking about what happened to them is often the last thing they feel like doing.
However; talking about your feelings can be the best way of dealing with the experience. Everyone will be different and you will need to proceed when you are ready and at your own speed – it cannot be hurried. Friends, family, colleagues or professionals can help you to talk about the trauma.
Denial after bereavement or a traumatic event is quite common and research suggests that this gives you ‘time out’ from the trauma. This is very similar to being unconscious. Challenging or interrupting this ‘time out’ by forcing someone to talk about the trauma too soon is harmful as it can etch the fine details into the conscious mind. It seems that while you are in denial you are unconsciously beginning to come to terms with the trauma. If left alone, the person may recover and PTSD not develop.