Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder is a chronic mental or psychiatric disorder that may occur in individuals who experience or witness a shocking, terrifying or traumatic event usually with physical harm being inflicted. Normally after such an event, the intense fear, helplessness or horror caused usually goes away over time for most people. However, for those with PTSD, these feelings become stronger with time often culminating in a state whereby they cannot go about their life ordinarily therefore necessitating medical intervention.
The causes of PTSD are usually events linked to actual or threatened death, physical assault, accidents, natural disasters, robbery, kidnapping, fires or sexual harassment/ violence. However, since a few people get the condition, doctors presume that it occurs as a complex in those with inherited mental health risks such as anxiety or depression, inherited personality aspects (temperament), previous stressful experiences in life such as childhood abuse or disorders involving the hormones and chemicals released in stressful moments. Other risk factors that may predispose one to PTSD include: drug abuse, having a job with increased exposure risk to traumatic events such as military personnel, and lacking a support system from friends and family.
Symptoms usually occur after one or two months, but sometimes begin years after the traumatic event. The course of the illness varies from 6 months to years (becomes chronic). The symptoms are classified into four categories. Intrusion symptoms are common and include repeated distressing dreams, memories/ flashbacks of the traumatic event which may be very vivid and lifelike. The next kind is avoidance symptoms which include keeping away from people, objects, activities, places, having thoughts or talking about anything that may trigger the flashbacks. The patients also exhibit alterations in cognition and mood such as negative thoughts or feelings, inability to recall key aspects of the traumatic event, inability to experience positive emotions such as happiness, or having feelings of fear/ anger/ guilt/ shame which can lead to wrongly blaming oneself or others. The fourth type is alterations in arousal and reactivity, whereby they behave in a self-destructive manner, become easily startled or have difficulty sleeping and concentrating.
Failure to seek medical help may complicate into depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders or suicidal thoughts and actions. Therefore, it is paramount to see a doctor or a mental health professional. Diagnosis is made by confirming the symptoms described above, performing a medical history and physical examination. There are no lab tests that specifically diagnose PTSD, but the doctor could order some tests to rule out physical illnesses that may cause the symptoms. Psychiatrists also use special interviews and assessments to evaluate the individual for PTSD. For a diagnosis to be made, the patient must have had symptoms for at least a month.
The treatment modalities include psychotherapy (“talk” therapy) and use of medication (usually anti-depressants), but it primarily depends on how the affected individual is affected. For instance, those experiencing sleep problems and nightmares will get specific medication. Psychotherapy is done in one-on-one or group sessions which usually last two to three months, but may be more depending on the patient’s case. The psychiatrist may use exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring treatments to enable the patient manage their symptoms effectively. Those experiencing ongoing trauma such as abusive relationships, individuals with substance abuse or having related illnesses such as anxiety disorders require additional intervention to address these problems as well. This will improve the outcome of treatment.
It is our duty to raise awareness about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among our friends and family, reduce stigma associated with the condition and promote health-seeking behavior among those suffering from it. Early intervention among people who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events may reduce symptoms or prevent PTSD altogether.