PTSD results from life events that are traumatic. Unlike typical stressors we all experience in daily life, traumas are events that are exceptionally stressful or scary, involving threat of serious injury or death to you or a loved one. This is typically followed by feelings of intense fear, horror and/or helplessness, if not total numbness and disbelief. Examples of traumas include rape, natural disasters, car crashes, military combat and other instances where ones life is on the line. Symptoms of PTSD fall into three categories:
- Disturbing memories, dreams and/or flashbacks
- Extreme emotional distress or physical reactivity (eg, heartbeat and breathing change) when reminded of the event
- Avoiding thoughts, feelings & conversations about the event
- Avoiding people, places & situations reminding you of the event
- Problems recalling important parts of the event
- Loss of interest in activities, feeling emotionally numb, feeling disconnected from others
- A sense that life will be cut short
- Sleep difficulties
- Problems concentrating
- Feeling constantly on guard and easily startled.
Most people do not have all symptoms of the disorder and a certain combination is necessary for a diagnosis to be made. This can only be done by a mental health professional. PTSD is diagnosed if symptoms endure for 1 month following a trauma. Before then the condition is known as an Acute Stress Disorder.
Psychotherapy treatment for PTSD has shown much success. Most research has focused on exposure-based treatments, specifically, telling the story of what happened in enough detail and with enough frequency to elicit the emotions of the event. The long-term goal of course is to feel less intensity of emotion when reminded of the traumas of your past. The treatment involves minimizing avoidance of thoughts, feelings, places, people, etc, working on negative beliefs that have stemmed from the event (e.g., "The world is an unsafe place", "It is my fault for putting myself in that situation"), and gradually "processing" the bad memories so that they are easier to manage. The treatment length varies for each person, depending in part on the number of previous traumas, the type of trauma, and pre-trauma personality traits. My treatment approach is consistent with the cognitive-behavioral strategy outlined above. I have seen a great deal of success using this approach.