What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is among only a few mental illnesses that are triggered by a disturbing outside event, unlike other psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression.
Many Americans experience individual traumatic events ranging from car and airplane accidents to sexual assault and domestic violence. Other experiences, including those associated with natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, affect multiple people simultaneously. Simply put, PTSD is a state in which you “can’t stop remembering.”
In one out of 10 Americans, the traumatic event causes a cascade of psychological and biological changes known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Wars throughout the ages often triggered what some people used to call “shell shock,” in which returning soldiers were unable to adapt to life after war. Although each successive war brings about renewed attention on this syndrome, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that PTSD was first identified and given this name. Now, mental health providers such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and other health care professionals can attempt to understand people’s response to these traumatic events and help them recover from the impact of the trauma.
Although the disorder must be diagnosed by a mental health professional, symptoms of PTSD are clearly defined. To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have been in a situation in which placed you at risk for death, serious injury, or sexual violation. Traumatic, life-threatening events leading to PTSD must have been witnessed or experienced in person, and not through media, pictures, television or movies.
The type and severity of a trauma can be associated with the likelihood for developing PTSD, although many factors contribute to overall risk and symptom severity. The most severely affected may have trouble working, maintaining relationships, and effectively parenting their children.
Research has shown that PTSD is associated with changes in brain function (and, people with certain pre-existing abnormalities in the brain’s stress-response system may be predisposed to develop PTSD after exposure to traumatic events). MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans show changes in the way memories are stored in the brain. PTSD is an environmental shock that changes your brain, and scientists do not know if it is reversible.
- In the United States, 60% of men and 50% of women experience a traumatic event during their lifetimes. Of those, 8% of men and 20% of women may develop PTSD. A higher proportion of people who are raped develop PTSD than those who suffer any other traumatic event. Because women are much more likely to be raped than men (9% versus less than 1%), this helps explain the higher prevalence of PTSD in women than men.
- Some 88% of men and 79% of women with PTSD also have another psychiatric disorder. Nearly half suffer from major depression, 16% from other types of anxiety disorders besides PTSD, and 28% from social phobia. They also are more likely to have risky health behaviors such as alcohol abuse, which affects 52% of men with PTSD and 28% of women, while drug abuse is seen in 35% of men and 27% of women with PTSD.
- More than half of all Vietnam veterans, about 1.7 million, have experienced symptoms of PTSD. Although 60% of war veterans with PTSD have had serious medical problems, only 6% of them have a problem due to injury in combat.
- African Americans, when they are exposed to trauma, are more likely to develop PTSD than whites.
- People who are exposed to the most intense trauma are the most likely to develop PTSD. The higher the degree of exposure to trauma, the more likely you are to develop PTSD. So, if something happens to you more than once or if something occurs to you over a very long period of time, the likelihood of developing PTSD is increased.
- Sometimes, people who have heart attacks, cancer or other serious medical problems that pose a sudden threat to one’s physical integrity and produce feelings of horror and helplessness may develop PTSD.
- Refugees ( people who have been through war conditions in their native country or fled from conflict) may develop PTSD and often go years without treatment.
- New mothers may develop PTSD after an unusually difficult delivery during childbirth. Also, patients who regain partial consciousness during surgery under general anesthesia may be at risk for developing PTSD.
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