We are continuing this week with our discussion of mental health topics, in recognition of May being Mental Health Month. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic experience that involved the possibility of injury or death, such as a natural disaster or military deployment. PTSD can occur at any age, and can also follow events like an assault or abuse. PTSD has a prevalence of about 9 to 12% in the general population; however, this condition is often underdiagnosed in the African American community, and African Americans are less likely to receive treatment for it.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD can manifest in a variety of ways. Its symptoms often appear within weeks of the traumatic event and may persist for days, months, or even years. These symptoms may be frightening and disabling, affecting all aspects of a person’s life.
Victims of PTSD often experience panic attacks-sudden feelings of extreme anxiety during which their heart rate increases and breathing becomes more rapid (hyperventilation). During panic attacks, it is common for the person to feel as if he and she were dying or losing control, or even to feel dizzy or unsteady. They usually last only a few minutes, but they can last for 20 minutes or more.
A person with PTSD often experiences flashbacks, or vivid recollections of the traumatic event, eliciting severe emotional stress that can often result in further injury. He or she may momentarily lose touch with reality, reliving that event in their minds. During the flashback, the person experiences the same sort of fear, anxiety, and horror that he or she felt during the actual event. The distress the experience produces can often leave the person feeling numb and detached from others. It may prove difficult to express normal, everyday emotions and feelings toward other people, so people with PTSD often cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Many of these individuals also turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their pain.
This psychological distress can also result in other anxiety-related symptoms. For example, the person may have difficulty sleeping due to feelings of restlessness or even recurrent nightmares. Feelings of irritability, anger, or guilt-especially survivor’s guilt-can interrupt normal functioning and have a negative impact on one’s well-being. The person may feel especially vulnerable and possibly paranoid, fearing that his or her life might be in danger.
Moreover, difficulty concentrating and remembering things like simple words may interfere with one’s ability to function at his or her job. Finally, the person may develop suicidal thoughts feelings and could potentially act on those feelings.
Who is at risk for developing PTSD?
Anyone who is involved with a traumatic event, either personally or as a witness, can develop PTSD. For example, a first-aid worker responding to a bad accident may be so psychologically affected by the experience that he or she experiences PTSD. Females seem to be especially vulnerable to the condition, as do people who have other psychological illnesses or a family history of mental disorders. People who have had traumatic events in their own lives, such as recently losing a loved one, may also have a greater likelihood of developing PTSD after seeing or being involved in another tragedy.
There are no tests that can be done to diagnose PTSD. The diagnosis is made based on certain symptoms. Your health care provider may ask for how long you have had symptoms. This will help your health care provider know if you have PTSD or a similar condition called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).
•In PTSD, symptoms are present for at least 30 days.
•In ASD, symptoms will be present for a shorter period of time.
Your health care provider may also do mental health exams, physical exams, and blood tests to look for other illnesses that are similar to PTSD.
What treatments are available?
Treatment for PTSD is two-pronged: it involves both cognitive-behavioral and medication aspects. Cognitive-behavioral treatment occurs under the guidance of a trained therapist who can teach the person how to cope with the trauma-induced stress. Therapy is highly recommended and involves diffusing the event in the victim’s mind by identifying the anxiety or stress-related symptoms and slowly coming to grips with them. Behavioral activities such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, and choosing relaxing activities like meditation or yoga relieve stress and therefore may help in the healing process.
Medications, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, may also be prescribed either short-term or long-term to help the person cope. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often chosen as the first-line treatment because they maintain healthy levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is associated with feeling stable; low levels of serotonin can result in feelings of apathy, depression, and anxiety. Only a doctor can decide what medication is appropriate for a particular patient.
Of course, the best treatment for PTSD involves preventing it from occurring in the first place. One should seek professional assistance from a therapist or trained crisis counselor as early as possible after experiencing trauma. These counselors can help identify stress triggers and help the person cope before those triggers become unmanageable. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven especially useful for addressing stress and anxiety early-on. With the help of your doctor and therapist, PTSD is not only treatable; it is preventable.
Do you need further information or have questions or comments about this article? Please call toll-free 1-877-530-1824. Or, for more information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, please visit our website: http://www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE.