Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a condition that has been well identified in individuals who have fought in military wars. While this is certainly an accurate association, affecting nearly 30% of Vietnam Veterans, PTSD also applies to other individuals who have never been present on the field of battle.
In what follows, we’ll be discussing the most common characteristics of PTSD. Further, we’ll also discuss some of the science behind the condition, its symptoms, and available treatment.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric mental health condition prevalent in about 6-10% of the United States population and presents itself after a traumatic event, whether actual or perceptual.
PTSD often exists in those who suffer from other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or substance abuse disorders. In fact, nearly 80% of patients diagnosed with PTSD are also diagnosed with at least one other psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.
While it’s not yet understood to its full extent, the mental science behind the development of PTSD appears to involve three major brain cortexes. Those three cortexes are the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. Studies have also shown a chemical imbalance involving norepinephrine and glucocorticoid levels. The greater the chemical imbalance in these three regions of the brain, the more severe the symptoms of PTSD become.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
Similar to disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder, the use of the description “PTSD” is often misplaced. On the contrary, PTSD describes a debilitating condition that can impact an individual so immensely that it can become catastrophic.
PTSD is such a sensitive disorder that even the most mundane words or sounds can trigger symptoms and result in the spiraling of the mind. The symptomatology involved in PTSD can be broken down into four primary groupings: mood, reaction, intrusion, and avoidance.
With this category, symptoms can involve negative thoughts, distorted perspectives, poor memory, and a reduced desire to participate in day-to-day life.
Examples of specific symptoms in this subcategory include racing thoughts, rapid heart rate, depression, anxiety, mood swings, lightheadedness, and irritability.
With this category, symptoms can involve feelings of angst and anger and an inability to focus for even the shortest periods of time, leading to irrational, reactionary behavior.
Examples of specific symptoms in this subcategory include irritability, lash-outs, short-temperament, and poor focus.
With this category, symptoms can involve having intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, vivid memories, reoccurring nightmares, and mental distress.
Examples of specific symptoms in this subcategory include overwhelming fear, irrational thoughts, and false perspectives.
With this category, symptoms can involve acts of avoidance in which they distance themselves, isolate themselves, and self-sabotage themselves. This behavior is an effort to prevent the occurrence of any action that reminds them of a traumatic event.
The four different categories of symptoms make up the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for PTSD. In order to be officially diagnosed with PTSD, the individual must have (1) at least one stressor is to be present, (2) persistent intrusive symptoms are to be present, (3) at least one avoidance symptom is to be present, (4) at least two cognitive/mood symptoms are to be present, and (5) reactionary behavior is to be present.
Other diagnostic criteria include the duration of symptoms, the individual’s level of functioning, and the exclusion or inclusion of particular substances.
Causes and Risk Factors Associated with PTSD
Unlike other mental health conditions that have broader, often difficult to understand causes, PTSD’s cause is quite clear. Individuals who experience a traumatic event are at risk of developing PTSD, yet not all who experience these events will develop the condition.
While the cause of PTSD is clear, the reason why it impacts the brain so detrimentally is not understood. Research on PTSD has clarified the location of the brain that is impacted, yet it has not concluded how the trauma changes the brain.
The following are common risk factors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder:
- Traumatic Experiences (War, Vehicular Accident, Sexual Assault, Natural Disaster, or Acts of Violence)
- History of Mental, Emotional, or Physical Abuse
- Family History of PTSD
- Substance Abuse
- Poor Social Support
- Extreme Environmental Stress
- History of Other Mental Health Conditions
- Lack of Coping Mechanisms Available During Traumatic Events
Individuals who develop PTSD can have mild or severe symptoms, and this range of severity of symptoms is due to differing individual reactions to traumatic events.
Other factors determining the severity of symptoms include whether or not they have coping skills, personal support, or pre-existing health conditions.
The type of treatment required for those living with PTSD depends on the level of severity. The primary purpose of treatment is to reduce the severity of and minimize the frequency of symptoms. The secondary purpose is to help individuals learn how to manage symptoms best if they persist. The third purpose is to help change perspectives, clarify reality, and ultimately improve the overall brain health of the patient.
The following are the most common treatments for PTSD:
- Anti-Anxiety Medication
- Mood Stabilizers
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Exposure Therapy
- Family therapy
PTSD can be a debilitating condition, and it’s important that treatment and therapy begin as soon as possible. Through psychotherapy, appropriate medication, and other treatment, including personal support groups and lifestyle changes, those with PTSD can improve their lives.