What is it?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that arises after the patient experiences a traumatic event. It is commonly seen in war veterans and victims of assault. When faced with stress the brain naturally releases adrenaline and goes into fight or flight mode. This is a very helpful and sometimes life saving response when under the right circumstances. However, with PTSD the brain experiences the "fight or flight" response when there is no danger to the person. A common example of this can be seen during the New Years and Fourth of July when fireworks are a common occurrence. For some war veterans the sound of fireworks going off will trigger a PTSD episode because the sounds they hear resemble that of gunfire or IED explosions. During their episode, they go into a fight or flight response despite being in no actual danger. This means that their body will release adrenaline to increase the heart and respiration rate and non vital functions - like the digestive system - will temporarily cease so that the greatest amount of Oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to the heart, lungs, brain, and skeletal muscle. Along with the temporary changes, the patient's hippocampus (memory center) will decrease in size while their amygdala (emotion center) will become more active than what is considered normal.
What are the symptoms?
There are four different categories that the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may fall under.
- Intrusive Memories: Intrusive memories are memories that occur at random times and are not pleasant. They can come in the form of flashbacks or nightmares and they make the patient feel as though the events occurring in the memory are currently happening, causing unnecessary stress.
- Avoidance: Avoidance happens when the patient begins to avoid certain situations that may cause anxiety. For some this means avoiding large crowds, being alone, or even avoiding cars. This can quickly become problematic as it interferes with the patient's day to day life activities.
- Negative Changes in Thinking or Mood: Often times with PTSD, the patient will begin to act either aggressively or seem to be in a depressed state. The aggression will typically occur when they are having an episode as they feel it is part of survival. The depressed state is not something everyone with PTSD will experience, and may be an indicator of depression rather than just Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Changes in Physical and Emotional Reactions: Along with changes in thinking or mood, when faced with a stressful situation a sufferer of PTSD may act differently than they did before the trauma. This change will vary with each individual person but can range from becoming enraged and violent to scared and running away from the stress.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a reaction to experiencing a traumatic event. For something to be considered traumatic, it must be an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation. It is caused by a combination of experiences, genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders, the patient's temperament, and the way they are able to regulate and handle stress. Not everyone who goes through a traumatic experience will develop PTSD.
Typically, treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will be a mixture of both medications and therapy. Exact medications will vary on a case by case basis as each patient has their own needs, but they are generally prescribed antidepressants, anti anxieties, and occasionally Prozosin will be added to the mix if the patient also suffers from nightmares/night terrors as a result of the PTSD. There are 3 types of therapy that is usually used in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and they are:
- Cognitive Therapy: In this therapy, the patient and their psychiatrist will get together and talk through the emotions of the patient in the hopes of allowing the patient to understand why what is happening is happening. This allows for the patient and doctor to identify the causes and gives the patient coping techniques for times of extreme stress.
- Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy slowly introduces the patient to situations that trigger their PTSD episodes, and at the same time the psychiatrist will be there to introduce coping mechanisms and remind the patient that they are safe and will not be harmed. Over time, if done correctly, the patient will be able to be completely exposed to their stressor without it inducing panic.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a relatively new therapy that uses the bodies natural ways of calming down to make a stressful event less so. The therapist will sit with the patient and have the patient follow their fingers as they talk through their traumatic event. This causes them to look in multiple directions which prevents them from going back and reliving the event, as their brain must constantly translate the impulses it is receiving as a result of looking around. This desensitizes the patient to the event, allowing for future recall to be less stressful.
What is it like to live with PTSD?
Each person who has PTSD will experience it in a different way as what works for them will not work for everyone. However it is often difficult for the patient until they have gotten control over their symptoms. To read more about living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from those who have been diagnosed, please click the link below.
Although those suffering with PTSD may feel a sense of helplessness, it is important to be there and remind them that they are more than their disorder. If you or someone you know suffers from PTSD please do not be afraid to reach out to your local health care practitioner to receive help.