Are you concerned you or a loved one may be struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder? If you’ve noticed any of the below warning signs or symptoms, it may be time to reach out for professional help.
Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that develops as the result of experiencing an event that causes extreme emotional distress. When people experience a traumatic experience, it is only natural to react with fear and sadness, however, some people will experience fear and sadness at such an extent that it begins to interfere with their ability to function appropriately on a daily basis. These people begin to experience things such as vivid flashbacks of the event, causing them to feel as if they are reliving it, or feeling a heightened sense of awareness that causes the development of severe anxiety as they begin to feel like they are in a constant state of danger.
While not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD, the disorder can affect people of all ages and ethnicities. Its development will present differently in each person, with some people experiencing symptoms immediately following the event while others may not suffer from symptoms until weeks, months, or sometimes even years after the actual event occurred. Any situation that causes someone to feel helpless or victimized can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, but the most common events that lead to such severe distress include:
- Rape, sexual assault, or any kind of physical and/or emotional abuse
- Plane crashes or car accidents
- Terrorist attacks
- Natural disasters
- Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
PTSD can be debilitating but, with proper treatment, people are able to overcome their symptoms and return to a leading a happy, fulfilling life.
It is said that every year approximately 5.2 million adults will suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. It is believed to be more common in women, with an estimated 10% of women developing PTSD at some point in their lives in comparison to only 5% of men. However, it is possible that this statistic is not accurate due to the fact that men may not report the presence of PTSD symptoms as frequently as women do.
Causes and risk factors for PTSD
There are a variety of different factors that can play a role in determining whether or not a person will suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder following a traumatic event. Some examples of the various causes and risk factors include:
Genetic: Like the majority of mental health disorders, there is believed to be a genetic link tied to the reason why some people develop PTSD following a traumatic event while others do not. It is believed that individuals who have a first-degree relative who suffers from anxiety disorders or other types of mental illnesses are a greater risk for developing PTSD than individuals without a similar family history.
Physical: Certain neuroimaging studies have that people who are suffering from PTSD have marked differences in the structure of specific parts of their brain. In addition, the levels of dopamine and serotonin tend to be lower in individuals who experience anxiety, which means that the way in which their brains regulate the chemicals in their body that are released in response to stress can lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Environmental: People whose lives tend to be overwhelmed by highly stressful situations are at an increased risk of developing PTSD. Things such as witnessing violence on a consistent basis or growing up in an environment where one is subjected to repeated abuse or other traumas can result in the onset of posttraumatic stress disorder later in life.
- Being female
- Suffering from physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse as a child
- Suffering from other mental health problems
- Lacking a strong support system
- Lacking coping skills
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
The signs and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder will vary greatly from person to person, depending on the person’s age, the longevity of the trauma that the person experienced, and the type of support system that the person has around him or her. Some examples of symptoms that a person suffering from PTSD may exhibit include:
- Vivid flashbacks where one feels as though he or she is experiencing the event again
- Intrusive and repeated memories of the event
- Recurrent nightmares
- Intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (e.g. sweating, rapid breathing, pounding heart)
- Avoiding people, places, or situations that remind the person of the traumatic event
- Loss of interest in things that he or she used to enjoy
- Feelings of detachment from those around him or her
- Having difficulty remembering certain, important aspects of the event
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Feeling excessively irritable
- Experiencing angry outbursts
- Feeling jumpy or having an exaggerated startle response
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Feeling constantly on edge or worried that something bad is going to happen
Effects of PTSD
When left untreated, the long-term effects of posttraumatic stress disorder can have a detrimental impact on a person’s life. People suffering from PTSD who do not receive treatment are also at risk for developing other mental health disorders or medical problems. Examples of other long-term effects that may result from untreated PTSD can include:
- Social isolation
- Loss of appropriate occupational functioning, possibly leading to unemployment
- Lacking the ability to have successful, healthy interpersonal relationships
- Separation or divorce
- Substance abuse or addiction
- Development of eating disorders
- Chronic pain
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
PTSD and co-occurring disorders
It is uncommon for posttraumatic stress disorder to occur alone, as it rather tends to exist alongside other types of mental health disorders. In fact, research has shown that 80% of people who receive a diagnosis of PTSD are also diagnosed with another mental illness. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders can include:
- Substance abuse disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
- Panic disorder
- Self-harming behaviors
- Suicidal ideation