Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that begins after a traumatic event. That event may involve a real or perceived threat of injury or death.
This can include:
a natural disaster like an earthquake or tornado
physical or sexual assault or abuse
People with PTSD feel a heightened sense of danger. Their natural fight-or-flight response is altered, causing them to feel stressed or fearful, even when they’re safe.
PTSD used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” because it often affects war veterans. According to the National Center for PTSD, it’s estimated that about 15 percent of Vietnam War veterans and 12 percent of Gulf War veterans have PTSD.
But PTSD can happen to anyone at any age. It occurs as a response to chemical and neuronal changes in the brain after exposure to threatening events. Having PTSD doesn’t mean you’re flawed or weak.
PTSD can disrupt your normal activities and your ability to function. Words, sounds, or situations that remind you of trauma can trigger your symptoms.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four groups:
flashbacks where you feel like you relive the event over and over
vivid, unpleasant memories of the event
frequent nightmares about the event
intense mental or physical distress when you think about the event
Avoidance, as the name implies, means avoiding people, places, or situations that remind you of the traumatic event.
Arousal and reactivity
startling easily and having an exaggerated response when you’re startled
a constant feeling of being on edge
bouts of anger
Cognition and mood
negative thoughts about yourself
distorted feelings of guilt, worry, or blame
trouble remembering important parts of the event
reduced interest in activities you once loved
In addition, people with PTSD may experience depression and panic attacks.
Panic attacks can cause symptoms like:
a racing or pounding heart
PTSD symptoms in women:
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), women are twice as likely as men to get PTSD, and the symptoms manifest slightly differently.
Women may feel more:
anxious and depressed
numb, with no emotions
sensitive to reminders of the trauma
Women’s symptoms last longer than those of men. On average, women wait 4 years to see a doctor, while men usually ask for help within 1 year after their symptoms start, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women’s Health.
PTSD symptoms in men:
Men usually have the typical PTSD symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, cognitive and mood issues, and arousal concerns. These symptoms often start within the first month after the traumatic event, but it can take months or years for signs to appear.
Everyone with PTSD is different. The specific symptoms are unique to each man based on his biology and the trauma he experienced.
If you’re diagnosed with PTSD, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe therapy, medication, or a combination of the two treatments.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or “talk therapy” encourages you to process the traumatic event and change the negative thinking patterns linked to it.
In exposure therapy, you re-experience elements of the trauma in a safe environment. This can help desensitize you to the event and reduce your symptoms.
Antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids may help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Two antidepressants are FDA-approved to treat PTSD: sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil).
There’s no specific test to diagnose PTSD. It can be difficult to diagnose because people with the disorder may be hesitant to recall or discuss the trauma, or their symptoms.
A mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner, is best qualified to diagnose PTSD.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must experience all of the following symptoms for 1 month or longer:
at least one re-experience symptom
at least one avoidance symptom
at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
at least two cognition and mood symptoms
Symptoms must be serious enough to interfere with your daily activities, which can include going to work or school, or being around friends and family members.
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