Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

on Wednesday, 05 December 2012. Posted in Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

This information is extracted from the website of Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health website.

About PTSD

PTSD is a set of reactions that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed an event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them, and led to feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror. It could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or natural disasters such as bushfires or floods. Other life changing situations such as being retrenched, getting divorced or the expected death of an ill family member, are very distressing and may cause serious mental health problems, but are not events that can cause PTSD. 

Anyone can develop PTSD following a traumatic event but people are at greater risk if the event involved physical or sexual assault, they have had repeated traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or living in a war zone, or they have suffered from PTSD in the past.  

Signs and symptoms

People with PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, which may resemble those felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD has three main types of difficulties:

  • Re-living the traumatic event ─ through unwanted and recurring memories and vivid nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic, when reminded of the event.
  • Being overly alert or wound up ─ sleeping difficulties, irritability, lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly being on the look out for signs of danger.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event and feeling emotionally numb ─ deliberately avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event. People may also lose interest in day-to-day activities, feel cut off and detached from friends and family, or feel flat and numb. 

People with PTSD can also have what are termed ‘dissociative experiences’, such as: 

“…it was as though I wasn’t even there…”, “…time was standing still…”,

“…I felt like I was watching things happening from above…”

“…I can’t remember most of what happened…”

Talk to your doctor at any time if you feel very distressed or your reactions are interfering with your work and relationships.

A health practitioner may diagnose PTSD if a person has a number of symptoms in each of these three areas listed for a month or more, and they lead to significant distress, or impact on their ability to work and study, their relationships and day-to-day life.

It is not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems at the same time. These may have developed directly in response to the traumatic event or have followed the PTSD. These additional problems are more likely to occur if PTSD has persisted for a long time. Up to 80 per cent of people who have long-standing PTSD develop additional problems, most commonly depression and anxiety. Many also start misusing alcohol or drugs as a way of coping.

Impact of PTSD on relationships and day-to-day life

"It’s as if she isn’t here anymore. She does everything that she is supposed to, looks after the kids and everything but she doesn’t seem to enjoy anything anymore. I can’t even begin to imagine what she’s been through and I’m afraid to ask questions just in case I upset her….she just can’t seem to move on. I just don’t know what to do anymore."

PTSD can affect people's ability to work, perform day-to-day activities or relate to their family and friends. People with PTSD can often seem disinterested or distant as they try not to think or feel in order to block out painful memories. They may stop participating in family life, ignore offers of help or become irritable. This can lead to loved ones feeling shut out. It is important to remember that these behaviours are part of the problem. People with PTSD need the support of family and friends but may not know that they need help. There are many ways you can help someone with PTSD. 

Treatment for PTSD 

It’s never too late to start addressing PTSD

Many people experience some of the signs of PTSD in the first couple of weeks after the traumatic event but most recover on their own or with the help of family and friends. For this reason, formal treatment does not usually start until about two weeks after a traumatic experience. 

It is important during those first few days and weeks to get whatever practical help is needed. This might include information and access to people and resources that can assist recovery. Support from family and friends may be all that is needed. Otherwise, a doctor is the best place to start to get further help.

Effective treatments are available

If a person feels very distressed at any time after a traumatic event, they should talk to their doctor. If they experience symptoms of PTSD that persist after two weeks, a doctor or mental health professional may discuss starting treatment. Effective treatments are available. Most involve psychological treatment, but medication can also be prescribed. Generally, it’s best to start with psychological treatment rather than use medication as the first and only solution to the problem. 

The cornerstone of treatment for PTSD involves confronting the traumatic memory and working through thoughts and beliefs associated with the experience. Trauma-focussed treatments can reduce PTSD symptoms, lessen anxiety and depression, and improve a person’s quality of life. They are also effective for people who have experienced prolonged or repeated traumatic events, but more time may be needed.

Drug treatments should not be used within four weeks of symptoms appearing unless the severity of the person’s distress cannot be managed by psychological means alone.

This information is sourced from the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health website: