Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs due to experiencing a frightening event and affects the body’s fight-or-flight response, normally triggered when a person is in a fear-inducing or stress-inducing situation. PTSD disrupts this natural process. This disorder is essentially characterized by feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress, despite not being in danger anymore and reliving the traumatic experience over and over again. Though this mental health disorder is normally associated with war veterans, it can affect anyone who has had a traumatic experience. Some people may even experience this problem when a loved one has gone through a traumatic experience or dies suddenly.
- The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can be broken down into three categories:
- Reliving the traumatic incident through flashbacks, bad dreams, and physical response to triggers
- Avoiding anything that may remind someone of the tragic event characterized by emotional numbness, depression, and loss of interest in hobbies or daily activities
- Hyperarousal symptoms that may lead to startling reactions, edginess, and difficulty in sleeping
Many symptoms are normal for a person who has gone through a traumatic event. Most symptoms will go away after a few weeks and fall into the category of acute stress disorder (ASD). When the symptoms persist for a longer time, it is typically classified as PTSD.
Acute PTSD lasts for less than three months, while chronic one lasts longer than three months, and delayed onset PTSD may begin weeks, months, or years after the traumatic event.
PTSD and the Brain
Researchers have lately been focusing on the genetic makeup of patients to understand its causes. Studies of the brain have also proven to be particularly helpful in this case. The amygdala, known for its role in emotion, learning, and memory, and the prefrontal cortex, involved in decision-making, problem-solving, and judgment, have been noted to be key players in its development. Individual variations in genes and brain areas could prove to be its underlying factors, yet the environment and life events play a larger role in its actual development. Head injury or severe trauma affects the brain in a way that leads to a disrupted trauma response and causes people to relive the event even when they are safe.
- Experiencing a traumatic event
- A history of mental illness
- Getting injured
- Witnessing someone getting injured/killed
- Feelings of extreme helplessness or fear
- A vulnerable or pessimistic personality
- Having no support after a traumatic event
- Having added stress after a traumatic experience such as the loss of one’s home, job, or loved one or experiencing additional pain/injury
- Experiencing trauma early in life
Common events that trigger an episode of PTSD include the following:
- Exposure to a combat or war zone
- Rape or sexual molestation
- Childhood abuse or neglect
- Physical attack, being threatened with a weapon
Psychotherapy and medication can help people to deal with their PTSD, such as antidepressants that help control sadness and anger, while benzodiazepines can help patients relax and sleep. Antipsychotics may be prescribed in extreme cases, especially for those with mental disorders.