What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional condition that develops following a life-threatening, dreadfully frightening, or highly unsafe experience. Recognition of this disorder increased significantly following the Vietnam War, when many returning American soldiers developed impaired functioning and alarming psychological symptoms. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 5.2 million American ages 18 to 54 have PTSD.

What are the possible causes of PTSD?

Almost all life-threatening events or that severely compromise the emotional well-being of a person may cause this condition. Such events include: witnessing or experiencing first hand a physical injury or severe accident, being the victim of torture or kidnapping, exposure to natural disaster or combat, and a terrorist attack. Being the victim of robbery, assault, mugging, or rape may also cause PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD are usually grouped into the following types: (a) avoidance and numbing, (b) intrusive memories, and (c) increased emotional arousal or anxiety. Symptoms of avoidance and numbing may include: feeling emotionally numb, memory problems, hopelessness about the future, trouble concentrating, and difficulty making and maintaining close relationships. Other symptoms include avoiding all activities you used to enjoy and trying to avoid talking about the distressing event.

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include nightmares about the disturbing event and flashbacks or reliving the event for a few minutes, hours, or even days. Symptoms increased emotional arousal an anxiety may include: trouble sleeping, anger or irritability, overwhelming shame or guilt, being easily frightened or startled, having hallucinations, and self-destructive behaviors like taking illicit drugs and drinking too much.

Why is PTSD difficult to diagnose?

Diagnosis can be difficult. PTSD is unique among other psychiatric conditions in that mental health professionals identify it not only by its symptoms, but also by the events that trigger the disorder. In addition, people with PTSD usually have other disorders (for example, depression or substance abuse) that share several PTSD symptoms. This makes diagnosis even more difficult.

Can PTSD be treated?

The aim of PTSD treatments is to relieve symptoms by helping the patient deals with the trauma he or she has experienced. Instead of avoiding the trauma and the things that remind it, the person is encouraged to recall and process the sensations and emotions he or she felt during the disturbing event. The following are the types of PTSD treatments: medication, family therapy, trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EDMR).