A recent question came from the mother of a child who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. She was confused because she thought that was related to soldiers in war situations. Her child was too young to be a soldier and had never been in a combat zone.
PTSD is a mental health disorder that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event. It is easy to understand why people relate it to the military. It was first described in American literature after World War I, and was often called “shell shock.” After World War II it became known as “battle fatigue.” There was much more research in the 1950s and 1960s with survivors of the Holocaust and Vietnam war, resulting in the term PTSD.
However, anyone who has experienced a traumatic event could have PTSD symptoms. Traumatic events include natural disasters such as a tornado or earthquake; a car accident; sexual or physical assault; a life-threatening illness; or a serious accident at home or work. The child diagnosed with PTSD could have been the victim, or could have witnessed any of these sorts of events, and the mother might not have been aware of it.
What are symptoms to look out for? The symptoms can be broken down into four categories.
Re-experiencing, or re-living the event: This includes nightmares about the event, or flashbacks. Flashbacks are when you feel like you are actually going through the event again. The nightmares and flashbacks are often triggered by something that reminds you of the event, such as a movie, a smell or a sound.
Avoidance: People will often avoid those triggers, or things that make them think about the event. For example, you may avoid the place where the event happened. Or you may avoid talking or thinking about the event. Some people try to stay busy, or may even turn to alcohol and/or drugs to keep themselves from remembering the event.
Hyperarousal, or feeling anxious/jittery: This is when people are always on the alert. You may have a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. It could be hard to concentrate or keep focused on things. You may be jumpy, or easy to startle.
Numbness: This can be a part of avoidance. You may push down your feelings and feel blank or numb. You may not remember some aspects of the event. You may start avoiding people, or find that you don’t enjoy activities that you used to enjoy anymore.
While the symptoms are overwhelming for people suffering from PTSD, and the people who care about them, it is important to remember that there are good treatments available, and recovery is possible. Treatment may include counseling, and there are very specific therapy techniques for PTSD. For some people, treatment may include medication, which could be short-term or long-term. There are also support groups for those suffering from PTSD, as well as their families.
People have asked me if I can help them forget the traumatic event. Successful treatment and recovery do not mean that you will forget the event. Instead, you regain your self-confidence, you learn how to cope with challenges, you start achieving your goals, and gain a sense that your life is worth living.