Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Posted by Frank Gillespie MA

It is normal to feel anxious, sad or disconnected after a traumatic event. You may feel that you’ll never forget what happened. But if you have a constant sense of distress and the painful memories don’t fade you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is important to seek help and reach out for support. Therapy is an effective way that can help you overcome PTSD and get back to your normal life.

What is PTSD?

PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following exposure of actual life-threatened events or death, combat-stress, natural disasters, serious injuries, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. It’s normal for the mind and body to be in shock after such an event, and this experience is often expected of someone who is experiencing a trauma.

What are the causes of PTSD?

The following symptoms apply to adults, adolescents, and children older than 6 years. Children who are 6 years and younger, it is recommended to seek a trained professional for further evaluation.

  1. Learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental)
  2. Experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

The disturbance, regardless of its trigger, causes clinically significant distress or impairment in the individual’s social interactions, capacity to work or other important areas of functioning. There are four main types of PTSD symptoms and they can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event
    • spontaneous memories of the traumatic event
    • recurrent dreams related to the trauma
    • flashbacks
    • other intense or prolonged psychological distress
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma
    • avoiding distressing memories, thoughts, feelings or external reminders of the event
    • estrangement from others
    • markedly diminished interest in activities
    • inability to remember key aspects of the traumatic event
  • Negative cognitions and mood
    • persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or others
    • depression
    • suicidal thoughts
  • Increased anxiety and emotional arousal
    • aggressive, reckless or self-destructive behavior (such as substance abuse)
    • sleep disturbances
    • hypervigilance

PTSD develops differently from person to person. The symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days after the traumatic event but sometimes they don’t surface for months or even years after the event occurred. They may also come and go.

What are the symptoms of PTSD in children and adolescents?

The symptoms of PTSD can be different in children than those in adults. PTSD symptoms in children may include:

  • Fear of being separated from parent
  • Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
  • Sleep problems and nightmares without recognizable content
  • Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
  • New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
  • Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
  • Aches and pains with no apparent cause
  • Irritability and aggression

What about PTSD in military veterans?

Military service is the most common cause of PTSD in men. Close to 30 percent of Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans treated at V.A. hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. For veterans who saw combat, the numbers are even higher, up to 49%. Under the guidance of a professional therapist, there are several types of treatment for PTSD available (see below).

What are the effects of PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your whole life: your job, your relationships, your health and your enjoyment of everyday activities. Having PTSD also may increase your risk of other mental health problems, such as:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Issues with drugs or alcohol use
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

Suicidal thoughts and feelings are common symptoms of PTSD. If you are thinking about taking your own life, seek help immediately. Talk to someone you trust, or call a suicide helpline:

  • In the U.S., call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • In the UK, call 08457 90 90 90.
  • In Australia, call 13 11 14.
  • Or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.

How to treat PTSD?

Recovering from PTSD involves helping the nervous system return to its balance. This process is easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist.

Therapy for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. The therapist will encourage and help you recall and process the emotions instead of avoiding them in order to reduce their powerful hold on your life.

Types of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder

Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an efficient way to deal with PTSD. Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy involves carefully and gradually facing thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of the trauma. Therapy also involves identifying upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event–particularly thoughts that are distorted and irrational—and replacing them with more balanced picture.

Psychotherapy can also help you if you've developed other problems related to your traumatic experience, such as depression, anxiety, or misuse of alcohol or drugs. You don't have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own. Getting help and support in time may prevent normal stress reactions from getting worse and developing into PTSD.

What to expect during PTSD therapy:

  • Exploring your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
  • Working through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
  • Learning how to cope with and control intrusive memories
  • Addressing problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

Self-help tips for PTSD

Professional therapy or counseling can help you understand your thoughts and discover ways to cope with your feelings. But there are plenty of things you can do in the meantime to help yourself cope with PTSD symptoms, such as:

  • Exercise: exercise can make you feel better, both mentally and physically. Spend time in nature! Pursuing outdoor activities like hiking, camping, mountain biking and skiing is an effective way in reducing PTSD symptoms.
  • Social engagement: Support from other people is vital to recovery from PTSD. Social interaction with someone who cares about you is the most effective way to calm the nervous system.
  • Healthy lifestyle: symptoms of PTSD can be hard on your body so it’s important to take care of yourself and develop healthy lifestyle habits. Avoid alcohol and drugs, eat a healthy diet, take time to relax and get enough of sleep.

How to help someone with PTSD?

PTSD can take a heavy toll on relationships and family life. It can significantly strain the emotional and mental health of loved ones and friends. The person you love may seem like a different person than you knew before the trauma: angry and irritable, for example, or withdrawn and depressed. The symptoms of PTSD can also result in job loss, substance abuse, and other stressful problems.

Tips for helping a loved one with PTSD

  • Be patient and understanding: Getting better takes time. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so be patient and offer a sympathetic ear.
  • Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers: Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.
  • Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.
  • Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is often very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.
  • Encourage participation. Plan opportunities for activities with family and friends. Celebrate good events.

Frank Gillespie MA

Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.


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