College and University Blog

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - Reliving the Past

You’ve probably heard the term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the news lately. The estimated lifetime prevalence of PTSD among adult Americans is 7.8%. Women (10.4%) are twice as likely as men (5%) to have PTSD at some point in their lives. This may change with the number of veterans coming back from the Iraqi war with PTSD. PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal. A variety of events may trigger PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD does not have to be the one who was harmed. The harm may have happened to a loved one or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to a loved one or strangers. PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans. It can result from a variety of traumatic incidents – mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. Not every traumatized person develops PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the incident but can emerge years later. Symptoms must last more than 4 weeks to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months. Others will have symptoms that last much longer. For some people, the condition becomes chronic.

Symptoms of PTSD can be terrifying. They may disrupt your life. It may be hard just to get through the day. There are four types of symptoms: reliving the event, avoidance, numbing, and feeling keyed up.

  • Reliving the event Bad memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. You may have nightmares. You may have flashbacks. Sometimes there is a trigger (a sight or sound that causes you to relive the event).
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the event You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
  • Feeling numb You may find it hard to express your feelings. This is another way to avoid memories. You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people. You may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.
  • Feeling keyed up You may be jittery. You may be alert and on the lookout for danger. This is known as hyper arousal. It can cause you to: suddenly become angry or irritable, have a hard time sleeping, have trouble concentrating, fear for your safety and always feel on guard, or be very startled when someone surprises you.

People who experience PTSD may also experience other problems. These include:

  • Drinking or drug problems
  • Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
  • Employment problems
  • Relationships problems including divorce and violence
  • Physical symptoms

PTSD is commonly treated using a combination of psychotherapy and medications. If you think you have an anxiety disorder, talk to your family doctor. A physician can determine whether the symptoms that you are experiencing are due to an anxiety disorder, a medical condition, or both.

If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, the next step is usually a referral to a mental health professional. You should feel comfortable talking with the mental health professional you choose. If you do not, keep looking. Once you find a mental health professional with which you are comfortable, the two of you should work as a team and make a plan to treat your anxiety disorder together.

Remember that if you choose to take medication, it is important not to stop taking it abruptly. Certain drugs must be tapered off under the supervision of a doctor or bad reactions can occur. Make sure you talk to the doctor who prescribed your medication before you stop taking it. If you are having trouble with side effects, it’s possible that they can be eliminated by adjusting your medication.

Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help or support group. Internet chat rooms can also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution. Talking with a friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not a substitute for care from a mental health professional.