Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone who has gone through a particularly stressful event and is commonly seen in victims of violent crime, accident survivors and armed forces veterans. In some cases it can also occur in people who have a loved one who has been through such an event.
Most people have difficulty adjusting after a traumatic experience but after a few weeks naturally return to normal. For some, however, the problems remain and although PTSD symptoms will usually appear with a few months of the event, in some cases they may take years to manifest themselves.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into three broad categories:
Re-experiencing the event
This is the most typical symptom and can be triggered by the sufferer’s own thoughts or by anything, however small, that reminds them of what happened. It involves:
- Involuntary re-living of the event through sudden flashbacks, distressing images or sensations and nightmares.
- Extreme distress and physical sensations like rapid heartbeat, pain, sweating and trembling that follow being reminded of the event.
- Negative thoughts about the event that cause sufferers to ask why it happened to them and if they could have prevented it. Feelings of guilt or shame are common.
Avoidance and emotional numbing
Another key symptom of PTSD, avoidance and emotional numbing often sees sufferers change their behaviour and become isolated and withdrawn from normal social contact. They will often:
- Do their utmost to avoid the people and places associated with the event and will avoid discussing it.
- Suppress any feelings they might have about the event (emotional numbing) and will lose or try to suppress any memories about what occurred.
- Create diversions for themselves, often by immersing themselves in work or hobbies.
- Make a change in what used to be their normal pattern of behaviour. For example, someone who has been survived a train crash will avoid rail travel.
Extreme anxiety and alertness
Extreme anxiety and alertness are conditions that require no triggers and can be a constant state for some PTSD sufferers. They can lead to irritability, outbursts of anger and insomnia. Sufferers will:
- Be constantly anxious and find it difficult to relax.
- Be hyper vigilant (on a constant state of alert) and easily startled.
The main symptoms of PTSD outlined above are fairly readily observable but other less obvious symptoms may be present:
- Depression and anxiety, including feelings of hopelessness with a limited future, guilt, shame and even suicidal thoughts.
- Substance and alcohol abuse.
- Feelings of betrayal and mistrust.
- Phobias may appear.
- Unexplained physical problems like headaches, chest pain, stomach pains and dizziness.
- Problems at work.
- Difficulties in relationships.
Children are also susceptible to PTSD after a traumatic experience. They too exhibit symptoms similar to those of adult sufferers but may also begin bed-wetting, be unusually anxious about being away from a parent or other adult, re-enact the experience during play or forget how to talk.
PTSD can lead to a worsening of other health problems and can dramatically affect family life. If symptoms do not improve it is important to get help, the sooner the better.