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Posttraumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health diagnosis that can arise after an individual is exposed to a traumatic or life-threatening incident. Common events include sexual or physical assault, experiences in war, automobile accidents, natural disasters, etc.
The symptoms of PTSD can vary widely and may include disturbing thoughts, feelings and/or dreams and mental and/or physical distress. Not everyone who experiences a life-threatening incident will develop PTSD, but those who do tend to have a heightened and sometimes life- interfering desire to avoid similar situations in the future. During World Wars I and II, returning veterans experiencing these symptoms were often referred to as experiencing “shell shock” or “combat neurosis”. The term Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was introduced after the Vietnam War, and was incorporated into the American Psychiatric Association’s’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1980.
One or more re-experiencing symptom. These can come sporadically and without warning and may induce panic attacks or other physical symptoms:
One or more avoidance symptoms. These are often based on a specific incident and may greatly alter one’s day-to-day routine:
An example might be someone traumatized by a war zone avoiding a bowling alley for the loud sound of the pins falling, potentially reminding them of the sounds of war.
Two or more arousal/reactivity symptoms. These are often constant and may interfere with daily life:
Two or more cognition/mood symptoms. These may be constant and difficult for others to understand:
Contrary to popular belief, Posttraumatic stress disorder is fairly common in the U.S. Women, people who have prior trauma history, people who have other mental health issues or use substances, and individuals with a fragile support network are often more likely to develop the disorder following a traumatic event.
While they would not technically fit current diagnostic criteria for the disorder, many children in America also struggle with PTSD-like symptoms as a result of various childhood traumas, including neglect, abuse, a dysfunctional family system, and more. In the brain, trauma can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as activity in the amygdala, (the fight or flight area of the brain). These changes and their after-effects can carry over into the teen and young adult years, affecting an individual’s emotional, mental, and sometimes even physical development. In teens and young adults, the reaction to trauma can present as an increase in irritability in lieu of other emotional symptoms. They may also experience something called post traumatic reenactment, or the compulsion to re-enact the trauma. An example of this would be a teen who was traumatized by a gunfight beginning to carry a gun.
Given their symptoms, it is unsurprising that those experiencing PTSD often have an urge to reach for substances to cope. Depressants and other drugs that relax or soothe the nervous system in the short term are often employed to help an individual manage situations that may be triggering. Stimulants or dissociatives may be used to combat depressive thoughts. As with most co-occurring disorders, this can lead to larger issues down the road:
As with other anxiety disorders, PTSD can be seen as our bodies’ natural, intelligent attempt to protect us from harm. If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event and/or is exhibiting the symptoms above, or been diagnosed with PTSD, know that care is available. While individuals sometimes turn to substances to “self-medicate,” or manage their symptoms, this often only makes matters worse. The sooner you seek PTSD care, the more you or your loved one is set up for a long-term and sustainable recovery. Our team is dedicated to serving individuals and families with substance abuse and the challenges of co-occurring disorders.