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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a form of anxiety that can occur after seeing, experiencing or living through a life-threatening event. This traumatic event may be military combat, assault as an adult or a child, sudden loss of a loved one, being a victim of a motor vehicle accident, or a witness to a catastrophic event. After the trauma, many survivors feel their lives have changed. A world that seemed stable and safe suddenly seems unpredictable and dangerous.

It is normal to feel many emotions after a traumatic experience, such as distress, fear, guilt, helplessness, shame and anger. These feelings usually subside, but sometimes they do not. If these feelings persist for more than a month, the person may have PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD may appear right after the trauma or a short time later. Symptoms may come and go over a long period of time.

Symptoms may include:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma – an individual may have flashbacks to the event, nightmares that recall the trauma, repeated thinking focused on the event and may become upset easily if something triggers a memory of the trauma.
  • Emotional numbing – a person may avoid people, places or situations that could remind them of the trauma. They may no longer be engaged in family activities or lose interest in hobbies. The person may feel disconnected from the world around them.
  • Anxiety – this may present in the form of insomnia or fear of sleeping because of nightmares, poor concentration, irritability and feeling constantly “on guard” and unable to relax. These symptoms may make it difficult to complete daily tasks.
  • Physical issues – these may include headaches, stomach pain, gastro-intestinal upset, muscle cramps, chest pain and panic attacks (feeling intense fear, shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating and a pounding heart.)

The main treatments for people with PTSD are “talk therapy” or psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. Depending on the person, treatment may include family therapy and/or group therapy. Psychotherapy means talking with a mental health professional to learn strategies to manage the symptoms of a mental illness. There are different types of psychotherapy that can help; some types may focus directly on the PTSD symptoms. Other therapies may focus on family, social or work-related problems. A psychiatrist may prescribe certain antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs can help to lower anxiety and depression and relieve other PTSD symptoms. Zoloft and Paxil are the only SSRIs that are currently approved by the FDA to treat PTSD. Antianxiety medications can relieve severe anxiety, but because these medications have the potential to be abused, they are usually only used for short term relief of symptoms. Studies indicate Prazosin (Minipress) may reduce or suppress flashbacks and nightmares. The use of Prazosin should be thoroughly discussed with the individual’s treating physician.

Recovery from PTSD is an ongoing process and takes time. There are a number of healthy steps an individual can take to help with recovery, such as connecting with friends and family, eating a healthy diet, exercising, using mindfulness techniques, getting plenty of rest, journaling, limiting caffeine, refraining from drugs and alcohol, and helping others. Individuals need to acknowledge their feelings and understand they are not to blame for what happened in their lives. The memories of a traumatic event do not go away, however a person can learn skills to better manage his/her response and feelings that come with the memories. Comments of self-harm should never be ignored. These comments need to be shared with a therapist or doctor.

The most important step that can be taken to help someone who may have PTSD is to help them find the proper diagnosis and treatment. Recovery is possible. It involves preparation, self-care and the identification of support systems. Emotional support, understanding, patience, and encouragement are critical key elements in finding the road to health, healing and recovery.

Krista Woolcock, RN-BC, BSN is a registered nurse providing acute mental health care for patients at Brook Lane’s hospital. She has over 20 years of experience working with individuals with a variety of mental health concerns. She personally experienced PTSD as a result of a vehicle accident that left her in a coma for 37 days and caused emotional suffering for several years following. With the help of psychotherapy and the support of family and friends she was able to recover. Krista uses her personal experience to provide understanding and hope to others who experience PTSD.