Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
What is PTSD?
PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a set of symptoms that some people develop after exposure or multiple exposures to extremely distressing or traumatic events. Traumatic events are situations involving actual or threatened death or serious injury, or threat to physical integrity of self or others, as can often occur during military deployment. PTSD can develop from direct exposure to traumatic events or from seeing or hearing about such events.
Natural responses to such events include
1) feelings of anxiety, horror, anger, irritability, guilt, distress, and/or confusion and body reactions (e.g., heart racing, sweating, etc) that feel difficult to manage and
2) avoidance of places, people, situations, and objects that remind you of the traumatic event or give you the same feelings you had during or after the traumatic event.
Sometimes these responses gradually decrease over time and people eventually begin to feel, think, and act like before the traumatic event. However, when these types of responses continue long after the traumatic events occurred (>1 month) in situations that are not objectively dangerous, distressing, or bothersome (e.g., in a crowded restaurant) or in situations you used to enjoy (e.g., in a movie theater, at the beach), these could be signs that PTSD has developed.
Which type of military or combat experiences can trigger PTSD?
Participating in combat
Treating wounded military personnel and citizens
Tending to casualties
Exposure to IEDs or similar unexpected blasts
Sexual assault or rape
Witnessing or participating in war-related atrocities
Motor vehicle accidents
*This is not an exhaustive list. Traumatic events can occur in many different situations, not just during combat.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
There are several symptoms of PTSD. They are categorized into 3 groups. If you experience symptoms in each category, for at least 1 month, you may have PTSD.
1) Reliving the traumatic experience or event: Veterans and active duty military personnel with PTSD experience memories, thoughts, and images of combat-related traumatic events that continue to arise even long after the events occurred. Symptoms include:
o Thoughts about the traumatic events continue to enter your mind even thought you do not want to think about it
o Flashbacks: reliving the traumatic event and often times experiencing physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, or shaking, feeling like the event is happening again
o Nightmares: experiencing repetitive disturbing dreams about the traumatic events or themes related to them
2) Avoidance: Constantly reliving a traumatic experience (e.g., in your thoughts, during flashbacks, in nightmares) is uncomfortable and distressing. A way to escape these thoughts and images and reduce the discomfort and distress is to avoid situations, people, places, and objects that remind you of the traumatic events or are similar in some way to these events. Symptoms include:
o Staying away from situations, people, places, or objects that remind you of traumatic experiences (e.g., avoidance of contact with the people you deployed with, avoidance of driving under bridges, avoidance of crowds, etc)
o Pushing away thoughts or doing what you can to not experience feelings related to traumatic events (e.g., drinking alcohol so that you don’t have to think about the traumatic event or feel irritated, tense, and distressed, etc)
o Feeling emotionally numb; not responding to news, events, or people with emotions the way you used to respond (e.g., unable to cry when hearing sad news, not feeling emotionally connected to others, feeling like you don’t care about the things other people care about)
o Losing interest or not enjoying things that you did before (e.g., you used to enjoy fishing, but now it does not feel rewarding or even enjoyable)
o Feeling depressed or having negative thoughts about your life/future (e.g., thinking you are a burden to others, feeling like you don’t have much of a future, etc)
o Forgetting parts of or being unable to talk about traumatic events
3) Hyperarousal: Veterans and active duty military with PTSD are often in a constant state of hyperarousal and feel “on edge.” While it is natural to feel this way during threatening or distressing situations during deployment, this can become a problem if it occurs during daily civilian life. Symptoms include:
o Being easily startled; feeling “keyed up” or “on edge”
o Being hypervigilant or constantly on guard (e.g., always scanning surroundings, making plans for escape, preparing for the worst case scenario, or planning tactical maneuvers)
o Experiencing difficulty sleeping
o Being easily angered or upset; feeling inpatient and irritable; having little tolerance for things that other people do or things that happen (even though you used to be able to tolerate these things)
o Experiencing difficulty thinking or concentrating
How do I know if I need treatment for PTSD?
You may consider seeking treatment if you experience some of the symptoms listed above and they:
Ø Create significant distress for you
Ø Interfere with your ability to complete important tasks or perform at work/school
Ø Make it difficult to interact with friends, family members, and others
Ø Decrease the overall quality of your life
Why should I get treatment?
Some people find it difficult to talk to others about military-related experiences. Some feel that nothing can help them. Others do not realize how much their understandable desire to not think about the trauma or feel distressed has impacted their daily functioning.
It is important to know that going through treatment may be difficult at first. Nevertheless, it can ultimately be helpful to unburden the thoughts and feelings that continue to disturb you and negatively impact your life.
In the long term, receiving treatment can improve:
Ø Physical and mental health
Ø Sleep quality
Ø School or work
Ø Overall quality of life
Where can I learn more about PTSD and PTSD treatment?
This website is provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs and provides information for both veterans and the general public.
The National Institute of Mental Health is a government agency dedicated to advancing our understanding and treatments of mental illnesses.