Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that manifests itself after an individual has experienced an extremely traumatic event. Anti-Vietnam War activists coined the term PTSD in the mid-1970s to describe the psychiatric problems affecting veterans of the war. But PTSD is not a new phenomenon; in earlier conflicts the condition was referred to, inter alia, as shell shock or battle fatigue.
Whilst the aftermath of the Vietnam War might have raised awareness of what we now call PTSD, it should not be assumed that the disorder is limited to the military - anyone who goes through a traumatic experience is vulnerable. Experiences like serious accidents, natural disasters and violent crime can all lead to PTSD.
Who is Vulnerable?
PTSD can strike anyone but only a third are likely to develop PTSD. Those most vulnerable are likely to have a history of mental illness or emotional difficulties. Risk also increases with the length of the event and the number of traumatic events previously experienced.
What to look for
In the days and weeks following a traumatic experience, everyone will feel some effects. This is natural and in most cases, these effects last only for a short time. PTSD, however, is a lasting consequence that in some cases doesn’t manifest itself for months or even years after the event. Sufferers will exhibit a number of symptoms:
- Re-living the event – typified by flashbacks, nightmares and unsettling images, often triggered by the sufferer’s own recollections, this is the most usual symptom of PTSD. It can result in pain, sweating, trembling and a rapid heartbeat.
- Avoidance – sufferers try to block out any memory of the event. They avoid talking about it and avoid people and places associated with it. They try to keep themselves occupied as a diversion.
- Anxiety and alertness – sufferers have difficulty relaxing and remain on high alert for anything out of the ordinary.
- Depression – it is common for PTSD sufferers to experience depression, feelings of hopelessness, shame, guilt and thoughts of suicide.
It should not be forgotten that children also suffer from PTSD. Often they display similar symptoms to adults but may also show extreme anxiety when away from a parent; wet the bed; and, re-enact the event during play.
As with all disorders of this nature, early treatment for PTSD is recommended. After a traumatic event, distressing thoughts and behaviour are to be expected but if they persist for more than a few weeks then you should seek medical help.
Current PTSD treatment can be very effective, and advances are being made all the time. At present, depending on the severity of the condition, treatment may involve:
- Careful observation to see if it resolves itself naturally.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy – exposing the patient to the event but using cognitive techniques to alter their erroneous perception of what happened.
- Eye movement desensitisation and processing therapy – a controversial technique in which patients have to make eye movements while recounting the event.
- Prolonged exposure therapy – gradually exposing people to the event to enable them to re-evaluate their circumstances.
- Medication with anti-depressants.