Experiencing something that is extremely frightening, painful or dangerous—for instance, being in a car crash, being physically assaulted, being deployed in a war-torn area as a soldier, or having had adverse childhood experiences like those experienced by child abuse survivors —will in some way have a deep impact on a person. Although difficult, most people can eventually recover naturally from these experiences. Unfortunately, some cannot.
People who continue to feel traumatized, even after the event has passed and they are no longer in danger, may be diagnosed with a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When a person has PTSD, they may experience some or all of the following, either soon after the traumatic event or years later. The symptoms are so severe they have a significant impact on work, school and relationships:
• They try to protect themselves by avoiding things that might remind them of the trauma, such as certain places, people or activities.
• They relive the trauma through nightmares, unsettling memories and flashbacks.
• They develop a type of emotional numbness. They may also abuse substances as a way to desensitize themselves and manage their PTSD.
• They feel edgy and jumpy, have difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and become irritated easily.
• People with PTSD often have other mental health issues such as depression or an anxiety disorder
Research from the National Center for PTSD found that seven or eight people out of every 100 will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetime. Women are more at risk than men, and researchers believe genes may make some people more likely to develop the condition. Treatment and recovery times vary.
In the military, PTSD is one of the most common health conditions among U.S. service members, according to a cohort study published in BMC Psychiatry.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, the number of veterans with PTSD varies by service area.
For veterans of the Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), about 11 – 20% of veterans who served have PTSD in a given year.
For Gulf War (Desert Storm) vets, about 12% of Gulf War veterans have PTSD in a given year.
And 15% of Vietnam War veterans are currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s by the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
Extremely stressful combat situations contribute to PTSD and other mental health problems. Another cause of PTSD in the military is sexual trauma. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is sexual harassment or assault that occurs while serving in the military. Around 55% of women and 38% of men have experienced sexual harassment while in service.
Note: Not everyone with PTSD has experienced a dangerous event firsthand. For instance, a person may have had a family member who was harmed, or someone they know died unexpectedly. These situations can also cause some people to develop PTSD.
To help a doctor properly diagnose you or someone you care about, take note of the symptoms as well as when they are occurring. If you are noticing any of the problems listed here and they are not going away—or are becoming worse—make an appointment to see a mental health specialist or medical professional as soon as possible:
• Noticing items or people that remind you of the trauma and cause you to re-experience it
• Upsetting or frightening thoughts that keep returning
• Avoiding talking about the traumatic event
• Being busy or overscheduled as a way to avoid thinking about the trauma
• Changing routines and habits in order to avoid another trauma
• Fear that something outside of your control will happen that will trigger feelings about the trauma
• Staying away from certain places, situations or objects that could remind you of the trauma
• Easily startled
• Constantly feeling “on edge”
• Having angry outbursts
• Panic attacks
• Problems sleeping
• Feeling distant from close friends and family members
• Feeling guilty
• Feeling you may die soon
• Forgetting key features of the traumatic event
• Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
• Negative thoughts about the world
Treatment for PTSD usually involves several different therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other treatments. An example of an alternative psychotherapy treatment is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In this therapy, a mental health professional works with a patient to reduce the power of past traumatic events using sets of repeated eye movements, sounds or taps.
A person with PTSD may be treated with just one or several medications, depending on their unique symptoms. The types of drugs used may include antidepressants, medications known as beta blockers , sleep medications, and drugs that relieve anxiety. Drugs that are often used before other medications are offered are antidepressants, such as:
• Fluoxetine (Prozac)
• Paroxetine (Paxil)
• Sertraline (Zoloft)
• Venlafaxine (Effexor)
Not everyone reacts to medications in the same way, and finding the right medication to treat PTSD may take some trial and error. In fact, up to half of all patients do not respond as desired (and some even experience adverse reactions) to the first psychiatric medication they’re prescribed. This is due in part to their individual genetic makeup (their DNA).
In very recent years, however, scientists have identified innovative ways to use genetic testing to help personalize medicine, so it better meets the needs of individual patients—and can help healthcare providers make informed treatment decisions for patients who have PTSD.
The information revealed by a patient’s DNA can also help a doctor better understand if a patient might experience negative side effects or adverse drug reactions, and avoid those options.
This remarkable science is already helping people suffering from debilitating PTSD, helping them gain peace of mind and better control of their lives, and be more informed than ever before.
“How Common Is PTSD in Veterans?” How Common Is PTSD in Veterans?, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 24 July 2018, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_veterans.asp.
“How Common Is PTSD in Adults?” How Common Is PTSD in Adults?, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 13 Sept. 2018, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp.
Armenta1, Richard F., et al. “Factors Associated with Persistent Posttraumatic Stress Disorder among U.S. Military Service Members and Veterans.” BMC Psychiatry, BioMed Central, 17 Feb. 2018, https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-018-1590-5.
With good information, you can better understand how these conditions may affect you, your loved one or your patient. The better informed you are, the better you can advocate. Learn more by clicking the topics below: