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What is PTSD?

May 26, 2019

Combat fatigue. Shell shock. Soldier’s heart. Post-Vietnam syndrome. These are some of the names PTSD used to go by. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD has likely existed since people first endured traumatic events and there is still so much to learn about this devastating condition. But let’s take a step back and look at what PTSD actually is.

 

Before we go any further into the conversation, I just want to be clear that I am no PTSD expert. I do not have personal experience with PTSD, so I cannot speak to what it’s like to live with PTSD on an intimate level. I am no professional, and I do not have all the answers. I may get things wrong. I’m still learning about this subject, but I will try my best. With that said, let’s get started.

 

PTSD is a mental health disorder that develops in some people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Examples of traumatic events include war, terrorist attacks, sexual assault, natural disasters, and other violent crimes, among other things. Looking at past names of the disorder, it’s clear that the veteran population was the most visible when it comes to this illness. And it’s easy to associate war and PTSD, but it’s important to remember that other horrifying, traumatic events can cause PTSD and that anyone can be affected.

 

Going through any traumatic event will naturally have repercussions and impact a person’s life and mental state. Coping with, and healing from, a traumatic event can be a very hard process and each person’s path looks different. Going through a traumatic event does not necessarily mean you will develop PTSD, and some people move through trauma and get better easier than others. PTSD arises when months, perhaps years go by and a traumatic event is still causing severe distress on a person’s life and impairs their ability to function.

 

People with PTSD have intrusive thoughts about the event and may experience flashbacks or have disturbing nightmares. It may feel to sufferers that they are reliving their trauma over and over again. These thoughts are often “triggered” by something that reminds them of the event, or their perpetrator. For example, a sexual assault victim who has PTSD may be triggered when passing the place where the assault occurred, even after the passage of many years.

 

This experience of reliving their trauma will often lead sufferers to do their best to avoid any triggers. They may avoid situations, activities, people, places, etc. that bring on distressing memories. They may resist talking about what they went through because they want to avoid the thoughts and feelings that come with it. This can horribly isolate someone with PTSD and put them on edge wherever they go.

 

Things people might not think about can be huge stressors for people with PTSD. For example, I love fireworks and the loud explosions only add to the experience. I had never thought about what experiencing fireworks might be like to a combat veteran with PTSD. What might seem like a wholesome and flashy way to celebrate the Fourth of July could be a trigger that sends someone back years to a very dark place.

 

Sufferers also often experience negative changes in their thoughts and moods. Hopelessness, detachment, loss of interest in things one used to enjoy, numbness. These alone sound very similar to symptoms of depression, but depressive symptoms can often be a component of PTSD.

People with PTSD may also experience changes in emotional and physical reactions. They may be irritable and quick to snap at others, become easily frightened, and engage in self-destructive behavior.

 

PTSD can be a debilitating, chronic illness and sufferers need our compassion and patience. A diagnosis of PTSD is not the end of the world and people can and do get better. PTSD is an extremely complex disorder, and I’ve mostly covered symptoms in this blog post, but there are so many other aspects of PTSD to explore. This was just a brief introduction to PTSD and the internet is full of information if you want to learn more. I highly recommend the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychiatric Association to learn more!

 

                                                         Image credit: dmec.org