PTSD - Do I Have It?
Find out who is at most risk, examples of what post-traumatic stress disorder feels like, and how to recover
A diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) means you have met the "stressor criterion" of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event such as combat, rape, fatal accident, or natural disaster. Since the trigger for PTSD is a traumatic event, it is classified as a trauma and stressor-related disorder, not an anxiety disorder. For sufferers of PTSD, the traumatic event has overwhelmed normal coping and adaptive behaviors in the brain and researchers recommend seeking professional help as early as possible.
I didn't know anything about PTSD when I was in a fatal car accident. I was very shaken, especially after seeing the deceased driver who hit me. A few weeks later, a deer slammed into my vehicle and, in an instant, I was covered in glass shards and deer hair. The initial accident was too much to handle on my own and the second accident made me feel even worse. I developed fears, stomach issues, jumpiness, irritability, and lost interest in pleasurable activities that required driving.
PTSD is Common
The National Center for PTSD estimates 4 percent of men and 10 percent of women will have PTSD at some point during their lives. PTSD is complex, common, can happen to anyone, and researchers are finding it is directly related to how the brain receives the traumatic event information at the time of exposure.
"Many people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime but most do not go on to develop PTSD, says Sonya Norman, PhD, director of the PTSD Consultation Program for the National Center for PTSD, and professor of psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine.
Who is at Risk for PTSD?
Norman indicates there is a lot of ongoing research to understand what puts someone at risk for developing PTSD after trauma. Women and racial minorities are at slightly higher risk. Having been exposed to prior trauma or already having a mental health diagnosis such as depression or an anxiety disorder puts someone at higher risk. Traumatic events that take place over an extended period of time, like a long battle in combat or experiencing many years of abuse, put someone at higher risk. Also, having little support or being exposed to a lot of stress following the trauma puts someone at higher risk.
"We know about these risk factors from studies that look at a large number of people and find higher probabilities among people with certain backgrounds or experiences. This doesn't mean that any particular individual with these characteristics will or will not develop PTSD," explains Norman.
Examples of Responses to a Traumatic Event
Emotional: Severe fear and anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, numbness and detachment
Physical: Nausea, shivering, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, extreme fatigue
Cognitive: Difficulty concentrating, distortion of time, memory issues, replaying the event over and over
Behavioral: Easily startled, restlessness, argumentative, increased use of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, avoidant behaviors
Emotional: Depression, fear of trauma recurrence, feeling vulnerable, mood swings
Physical: Nightmares, appetite and intestinal changes, elevated cortisol levels, hyperarousal
Cognitive: Flashbacks, preoccupation with event, self-blame, difficulty making decisions
Behavioral: Avoidance of event reminders, social relationship disturbances, decreased activity level, withdrawal
Several years have passed, and I can still recall most of both accidents and can drive past both locations without cringing. I have attended many cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions to retrain my brain so that I can continue to maintain my normal routine, and I have learned to live with hypervigilance and jumpiness while driving.
Self-care after a Traumatic Event
Seek supportive friends and family members
Find healthy ways to relax, i.e. listen to favorite songs, practice meditation, interact with a pet, spend time in nature
If immediate traumatic event responses do not improve within two weeks, seek professional help
Connect anonymously with a 7 Cups trained listener to talk about your experience with a caring, empathetic person 24/7
Contact a 7 Cups online therapist — there are many benefits to online therapy, including anonymity and getting help from the comfort of your home
Talk to your doctor or ask to speak with your doctor's nurse
Make an appointment with a therapist
Learn about PTSD from reliable sites such as National Center for PTSD, National Institute on Mental Health, and the PTSD Alliance
Norman says, "There are effective treatments available for PTSD. People can recover, feel a lot better, and do a lot more with treatment."