Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms, Treatment, and Self-Help
Melinda Smith, MA, Robert Segal, Ph.D., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. contributed to this article
www.helpguide..org

 

If you went through a traumatic experience and are having trouble getting back to your regular life and reconnecting to others, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When you have PTSD, it can seem like you’ll never get over what happened or feel normal again. But help is available – and you are not alone. If you are willing to seek treatment, stick with it, and reach out to others for support, you will be able to overcome the symptoms of PTSD and move on with your life.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Wendy’s Story
Three months ago, Wendy was in a major car accident. She sustained only minor injuries, but two friends riding in her car were killed. At first, the accident seemed like just a bad dream. Then Wendy started having nightmares about it: waking up in a cold sweat to the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass. Now, the sights and sounds of the accident haunt her all the time. She has trouble sleeping at night, and during the day she feels irritable and on edge. She jumps whenever she hears a siren or screeching tires, and she avoids all TV programs that might show a car chase or accident scene. Wendy also avoids driving whenever possible, and refuses to go anywhere near the site of the crash.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Most people associate PTSD with battle-scarred soldiers – and military combat is the most common cause in men – but any overwhelming life experience can trigger PTSD, especially if the event is perceived as unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect those who personally experience the catastrophe, those who witness it, and those who pick up the pieces afterwards, including emergency workers and law enforcement officers. It can even occur in the friends or family members of those who went through the actual trauma.

Traumatic events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include:

• War
• Rape
• Natural disasters
• A car or plane crash • Kidnapping
• Violent assault
• Sexual or physical abuse
• Medical procedures (especially in kids)

PTSD is a response by normal people to an abnormal situation

The traumatic events that lead to post-traumatic stress disorder are usually so overwhelming and frightening that they would upset anyone. When your sense of safety and trust are shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb – and most people do. The only difference between people who go on to develop PTSD and those who don’t is how they cope with the trauma.

After a traumatic experience, the mind and the body are in shock. But as you make sense of what happened and process your emotions, you come out of it. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, you remain in psychological shock. Your memory of what happened and your feelings about it are disconnected. In order to move on, it’s important to face and feel your memories and emotions.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences at least some of the symptoms of PTSD. It’s very common to have bad dreams, feel fearful or numb, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. But for most people, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several days or even weeks, but they gradually lift.

If you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, the symptoms don’t decrease. You don’t feel a little better each day. In fact, you may start to feel worse. But PTSD doesn’t always develop in the hours or days following a traumatic event, although this is most common. For some people, the symptoms of PTSD take weeks, months, or even years to develop.

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time. Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something that reminds you of the original traumatic event, such as a noise, an image, certain words, or a smell. While everyone experiences PTSD differently, there are three main types of symptoms, as listed below.

Re-experiencing the traumatic event

• Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
• Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
• Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
• Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
• Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

PTSD symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing

• Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
• Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
• Loss of interest in activities and life in general
• Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
• Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

PTSD symptoms of increased arousal

• Difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Irritability or outbursts of anger
• Difficulty concentrating
• Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
• Feeling jumpy and easily startled

Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

• Anger and irritability
• Guilt, shame, or self-blame
• Substance abuse
• Depression and hopelessness
• Suicidal thoughts and feelings
• Feeling alienated and alone
• Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
• Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain

Getting help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

If you suspect that you or a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s important to seek help right away. The sooner PTSD is confronted, the easier it is to overcome. If you’re reluctant to seek help, keep in mind that PTSD is not a sign of weakness, and the only way to overcome it is to confront what happened to you and learn to accept it as a part of your past. This process is much easier with the guidance and support of an experienced therapist or doctor.

It’s only natural to want to avoid painful memories and feelings. But if you try to numb yourself and push your memories away, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will only get worse. You can’t escape your emotions completely – they emerge under stress or whenever you let down your guard – and trying to do so is exhausting. The avoidance will ultimately harm your relationships, your ability to function, and the quality of your life.

Why Should I Seek Help for PTSD?

• Early treatment is better. Symptoms of PTSD may get worse. Dealing with them now might help stop them from getting worse in the future. Finding out more about what treatments work, where to look for help, and what kind of questions to ask can make it easier to get help and lead to better outcomes.

• PTSD symptoms can change family life. PTSD symptoms can get in the way of your family life. You may find that you pull away from loved ones, are not able to get along with people, or that you are angry or even violent. Getting help for your PTSD can help improve your family life.

• PTSD can be related to other health problems. PTSD symptoms can worsen physical health problems. For example, a few studies have shown a relationship between PTSD and heart trouble. By getting help for your PTSD you could also improve your physical health.

Source: National Center for PTSD

Finding a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

When looking for a therapist for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), seek out mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of trauma and PTSD. You can start by asking your doctor if he or she can provide a referral, however, he or she may not know therapists with experience treating trauma. You may also want to ask other trauma survivors for recommendations, or call a local mental health clinic, psychiatric hospital, or counseling center.

Beyond credentials and experience, it’s important to find a PTSD therapist who makes you feel comfortable and safe, so there is no additional fear or anxiety about the treatment itself. Trust your gut; if a therapist doesn’t feel right, look for someone else. For therapy to work, you need to feel respected and understood.

Help for U.S. veterans with PTSD

If you’re a veteran suffering from PTSD or trauma, you can turn to your local VA hospital or Vet Center for help. Vet Centers offer free counseling to combat veterans and their families. To find out more about the resources and benefits available to you, you can also call the VA Health Benefits Service Center at 1-877-222-VETS.

Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, you’ll be encouraged in treatment to recall and process the emotions and sensations you felt during the original event. In addition to offering an outlet for emotions you’ve been bottling up, treatment for PTSD will also help restore your sense of control and reduce the powerful hold the memory of the trauma has on your life.

Types of treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

• Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD and trauma involves carefully and gradually “exposing” yourself to thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of the trauma. Therapy also involves identifying upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event–particularly thoughts that are distorted and irrational—and replacing them with more balanced picture.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – EMDR incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with eye movements or other forms of rhythmic, left-right stimulation, such as hand taps or sounds. Eye movements and other bilateral forms of stimulation are thought to work by “unfreezing” the brain’s information processing system, which is interrupted in times of extreme stress, leaving only frozen emotional fragments which retain their original intensity. Once EMDR frees these fragments of the trauma, they can be integrated into a cohesive memory and processed.

Family therapy. Since PTSD affects both you and those close to you, family therapy can be especially productive. Family therapy can help your loved ones understand what you’re going through. It can also help everyone in the family communicate better and work through relationship problems.

Medication. Medication is sometimes prescribed to people with PTSD to relieve secondary symptoms of depression or anxiety, but it does not treat the causes of PTSD.

Self-help and support for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a gradual, ongoing processing. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many things you can do to cope with residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.

Reach out to others for support

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make you feel disconnected from others. You may be tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery from PTSD, so ask your close friends and family members for their help during this tough time.

Also consider joining a support group for survivors of the same type of trauma you went through. Support groups for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.

Avoid alcohol and drugs

When you’re struggling with the difficult emotions and traumatic memories, you may be tempted to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. But while alcohol or drugs may temporarily make you feel better, they make post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) worse in the long run. Substance use worsens many symptoms of PTSD, including emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression. It also interferes with treatment and can add to problems at home and in your relationships.

Challenge your sense of helplessness

Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times.

One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that contributes to trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the family

If a loved one has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s essential that you take care of yourself and get extra support. PTSD can take a heavy toll on the family if you let it. It can be hard to understand why your loved one won’t open up to you – why he or she is less affectionate and more volatile. The symptoms of PTSD can also result in job loss, substance abuse, and other stressful problems.

Letting your family member’s PTSD dominate your life while ignoring your own needs is a surefire recipe for burnout. In order to take care of your loved one, you first need to take care of yourself. It’s also helpful to learn all you can about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The more you know about the symptoms and treatment options, the better equipped you'll be to help your loved one and keep things in perspective.

Helping a loved one with PTSD

• Be patient and understanding. Getting better takes time, even when a person is committed to treatment for PTSD. Be patient with the pace of recovery and offer a sympathetic ear. A person with PTSD may need to talk about the traumatic event over and over again. This is part of the healing process, so avoid the temptation to tell your loved one to stop rehashing the past and move on.

• Try to anticipate and prepare for PTSD triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the trauma; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to offer your support and help your loved one calm down.

• Don’t take the symptoms of PTSD personally. Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include emotional numbness, anger, and withdrawal. If your loved one seems distant, irritable, or closed off, remember that this may not have anything to do with you or your relationship.

• Don’t pressure your loved one into talking. It is very difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their traumatic experiences. For some, it can even make things worse. Never try to force your loved one to open up. Let the person know, however, that you’re there when and if he or she wants to talk.

Related links for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

General information about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Research Fact Sheet – Overview of the latest research on PTSD, including its causes, risk factors, and promising new treatments. (National Institute of Mental Health)

Myths and Facts About PTSD – Learn the truth behind common misconceptions about PTSD. (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Alliance)

How Common is PTSD? – Fact sheet on the prevalence of PTSD in the U.S., including its occurrence in the military. Also includes information on PTSD causes and risk factors. (National Center for PTSD)

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Self-Test – Online self-test for PTSD to help you evaluate your symptoms. (Anxiety Disorders Association of America)

The Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Chronic and/or Delayed – Description of PTSD’s many symptoms, including withdrawal, avoidance, isolation, and flashbacks. (PTSD Support Services)

Treatment and help for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Treatment of PTSD – Guide to the treatments for PTSD, including cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR. (National Center for PTSD)

Finding a Therapist – Advice on how to find a therapist for PTSD treatment. Includes questions to ask a potential therapist. (National Center for PTSD)

Therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress and Dissociative Conditions: What to Look for and How to Choose a Therapist – Tips on choosing a therapist and treatments for PTSD. Includes a phone number for referrals. (Sidran)

VVA's Guide on PTSD – Advice for combat veterans on how to get help and claim military benefits. (Vietnam Veterans of America)

Coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Coping with PTSD and Recommended Lifestyle Changes for PTSD Patients – Tips on how to cope with PTSD in healthy ways that promote healing and recovery. (National Center for PTSD)

Managing Stress and Recovering from Trauma: Facts and Resources for Veterans and Families – Learn how to manage traumatic stress and cope with the symptoms of PTSD. (National Center for PTSD)

Helping a loved one with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Returning from the War Zone: A Guide for Families (PDF) – Advice for service members and their families on what to expect and how to adapt after returning home from war. (National Center for PTSD)

Partners with PTSD – Article for the friends and family members of people with PTSD. Includes an explanation of symptoms and what you can do to help. (Gift from Within)

Partners of Veterans with PTSD: Caregiver Burden and Related Problems – Learn how to help a loved one with PTSD while still taking care of yourself. Includes tips for dealing with caregiver burnout. (National Center for PTSD)