What is PTSD?

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What is PTSD?

When traumatic events happen, we need to make sense of our memories and feelings.

We may need to adapt to our experiences and the changes that often come with them. It is natural and normal for people to be shaken up after a traumatic event by showing signs of stress. In most cases, these difficulties go away after a few months with the passage of time, the support of family and friends, and assistance from a counselor, doctor, or clergy. In some cases, symptoms resulting from the trauma persist for more than a few months and affect a person’s daily life. This may indicate the presence of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Types of traumatic events

Posttraumatic stress disorder can develop after experiencing or seeing a traumatic event. It can also develop as a result of a loved one being in danger or harmed.

Common examples of serious events that can result in PTSD include:

  • Serious accidents
  • Victimization by crime
  • Combat exposure
  • Natural disasters
  • Terrorism
  • Torture
  • Rape and sexual assault
  • Intimate partner or domestic violence
  • Serious illness or unexpected death of a loved one
  • Childhood trauma, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, and witnessing abuse and violence
  • Witnessing violent or traumatic events

Who gets PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder can affect anyone of any age who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. This includes children as well as adults, and men as well as women, though women tend to experience PTSD more often than men.

Researchers are learning why some people get PTSD and others do not. They have identified some potential risk factors and resilience factors.

Risk factors include circumstances that make PTSD more likely, such as:

  • How frequent, intense, and long-lasting the trauma was
  • Feeling a loss of control and extreme fear for safety or life
  • Being physically injured or seeing others who were severely injured or killed
  • Not having much help and social support after the event
  • Dealing with additional stress, such as loss of a job, home, or a loved one
  • Close proximity to the event
  • A history of mental illness
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs as a means of coping

Resilience factors that may help reduce the severity of PTSD include:

  • A strong social network, including friends and family
  • Feeling good about your own actions in the face of danger
  • Having a coping strategy
  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear
  • Being able to find positive meaning and purpose from the event that helps you grow as a person

Common misconceptions

PTSD only affects war veterans.
PTSD can affect anyone who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. Most people will witness or experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. No one can predict with certainty which events will lead to the development of PTSD.

People suffer from PTSD right after a traumatic event.
PTSD is not diagnosed until after symptoms have continued for a few months. This is because most people experience reactions after an event that decrease over time. In PTSD, these symptoms persist longer than a few months and may get worse over time. Many people do not recognize that they have PTSD until their symptoms get worse. Sometimes stress can bring back old memories and bring on new PTSD symptoms.

People who do not recover from trauma are weak.

All people who experience trauma go through a process of adjusting to their emotions and memories in order to recover and heal. This can take days, or months, or years. It is difficult to predict why some people experience the effects of trauma longer or with more intensity than others. Many variables are involved, including the nature of the event, personality, social support, and past life experiences. It takes courage and strength to recognize and confront PTSD and begin the process of recovery.

People who do not talk about the event until later are probably faking.

Traumatic events are horrifying. It can be very difficult to talk about or even remember such painful events. Avoidance is one of the central symptoms of PTSD. A person may feel that no one is available who can relate to their experience or may be trying to avoid burdening others. In many cases there is shame, secrecy, and stigma associated with the trauma. Abusers, peer groups, and people in power may instill fear of being judged or not being believed. Breaking down these walls is not easy and takes time.

All of us have experienced something traumatic and have a little bit of PTSD from it.

Memories of traumatic experiences might be vivid, and people may recognize some of the symptoms of PTSD as similar to what they have felt. However, most people do not experience the severity of symptoms and the interference with daily life that is part of a diagnosis of PTSD. The experience of normal anxiety and disturbance are different from the changes in the brain associated with PTSD.

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