What is post-traumatic stress disorder? 

Almost 7.7 million Americans older than 18 live with a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This condition can impact your nervous system. It happens after you witness or experience a severe event. This might have been a natural disaster, war, sudden death of a loved one, violent attack or a life-threatening situation. Left untreated, PTSD can impact your relationships. It can last for months or even years. 

Causes of PTSD

Researchers aren't sure why some people get PTSD after a difficult life event. It's possible to develop the condition after a childhood trauma. Getting hurt or seeing another person hurt or killed can cause PTSD. Having to deal with extra stress after seeing such an event can trigger the condition. Some people are more resilient and have strong support systems, positive coping methods and an ability to act in the face of fear. These healthy skills and environments might make you less likely to get PTSD.

Risk factors for PTSD

Several things can make someone more likely to develop PTSD. Factors that contribute to PTSD include:

  • Being female; women are twice as likely to develop PTSD than men
  • Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Living through a dangerous event
  • Lacking a social support system

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms can start within a month of a traumatic event. They may appear up to a year or more after it, too. The symptoms can get worse over time. Children with PTSD may re-enact the traumatic event through play. They may have nightmares. Adults with PTSD often suffer intrusive memories. These make them relive the traumatic event in flashbacks or nightmares. Something might happen that's similar to the event. A strong physical or emotional reaction might then overcome you.

 Other symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Trying to avoid people, places or activities that remind you of the event
  • Having negative thoughts about yourself or others
  • Having difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Feeling overcome with guilt or shame
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Being easily frightened
  • Getting angry often
  • Drinking too much
  • Trouble sleeping 

Diagnosis of PTSD

Doctors diagnose PTSD by first doing a physical exam. This helps them determine if other medical conditions are causing your symptoms. Then you may undergo a psychological evaluation. This helps doctors learn if you've directly experienced a traumatic event or even if you learned someone close to you experienced such an event. If you've been exposed to graphic details of a traumatic event, you may also get a PTSD diagnosis.

Treatments for PTSD

Treatment of this condition can help you gain a sense of control over the situation. You might have psychotherapy and medication. A therapist works with you. They help teach you skills to help deal with your symptoms. You can learn to feel and think better about yourself and the world. You can also learn skills that help you cope in the future. 

Psychotherapy can help you work through the thoughts that "get you stuck." This therapy aims to help you gain confidence. You can learn to confront situations and memories that you find frightening. Medications can help you sleep. They may also reduce depression and limit severe anxiety you're experiencing.

Before, during and after working with a doctor, be sure not to self-medicate. Alcohol, nicotine and drugs can worsen symptoms of PTSD. They might also make it more difficult to cope with triggering episodes in the future.

Recovery from PTSD

It can take time – sometimes six months or longer – to reprogram your mind after a traumatic event. Remember that it's possible. Follow your treatment plan from your doctor. Educate yourself about the condition. That way, you can better understand your behavior and emotions. Take care of yourself with proper nutrition, exercise and relaxation. Most importantly, stay connected with those who love you. You can also find a support group to remember that you're not alone during this recovery period.