PTSD is an anxiety disorder that may develop after witnessing the death or serious injury of another person or after being seriously injured oneself. PTSD can also develop after an event that involved just the threat of death or serious injury even if no one was killed or physically hurt. The essential characteristic of the type of experience associated with PTSD is that it involved feelings of intense fear and helplessness.
The following is a list of symptoms that are used to diagnose PTSD in someone who has been exposed to a traumatic event.
- Vivid re-experiencing of the traumatic event in the form of intrusive thoughts and images, nightmares, or illusions and hallucinations (commonly called flashbacks)
- Intense emotional distress and physiological reactivity (racing heart, sweating, etc) when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event
- Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event (e.g., thoughts, people, places, conversations, movies, books).
- Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
- Decreased interest in regular activities
- Feelings of detachment from other people
- Limited range of emotion (unable to experience feelings of intimacy and attachment)
- Sense that one’s lifespan will be shorter than normal
- Increased arousal (e.g., easily startled, difficulty sleeping, irritability with outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, always on alert)
The types of events that frequently lead to the development of PTSD are rape, assault, exposure to combat, and motor vehicle accidents, but any event that causes intense fear and helplessness can cause PTSD. Importantly, it is the way in which the event is experienced by an individual not the event itself that causes PTSD. Thus, the emotional environment that a traumatic event takes place in and the amount of social support someone receives after experiencing a trauma may impact whether PTSD develops.
Whenever there is war, a large number of the soldiers who return home will have PTSD. This has been the case in all previous wars, but instead of being diagnosed with PTSD, those soldiers’ symptoms either went unrecognized or were classified with terms such as “shell shock” or “battle neuroses”.
Fortunately, the connection between the trauma of war and the development of PTSD is now better understood and there are many services available for American veterans suffering from PTSD through the Veterans Administration.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment
Unfortunately, many people suffering from PTSD do not seek treatment because of their desire to avoid anything that triggers their symptoms, including talking about their traumatic experiences. For this reason, individuals with PTSD may go many years without any formal treatment, often isolating themselves either physically or emotionally and using drugs or alcohol to help relieve their anxiety. Fortunately, once someone has become willing to seek help, there are many resources available for PTSD treatment. Like most anxiety disorders, PTSD is most effectively treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medications.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for PTSD
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the types of psychotherapy that has been shown to be particularly effective in PTSD treatment. The psychiatrists and psychologists of Anxiety.org have developed a self-help program called the ABCtracker™ that is based upon Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and can be used on this website for free. The ABCtracker™ was designed to help people suffering from anxiety disorders, including PTSD, by creating a personalized recovery program based upon their specific symptoms and circumstances.
There are only two medications that have an FDA indication for the treatment of PTSD – sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil). These two medications belong to a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that work by increasing the activity of neurons that use serotonin to transmit signals between them. Even though sertraline and paroxetine are the only medications with and FDA indication for PTSD, it is generally believed that all SSRIs are equally effective for this disorder.
Another medication that is frequently used by psychiatrists to treat the nightmares associated with PTSD is prazosin, although prazosin does not have an FDA indication for this purpose. Prazosin was originally used as a treatment for benign prostatic hypertrophy (enlarged prostate) where it works by blocking one of the types of receptors for adrenaline and related hormones. Prazosin’s nightmare reducing properties may also be related to the blocking of this receptor, although this connection has not been proven.