People often associate post-traumatic stress disorder with soldiers returning from service in combat. Actually, PTSD is a common psychiatric illness that can affect anyone who has been exposed to a life-threatening situation that caused overwhelming fear, anxiety and emotional arousal. From victims of domestic violence and car accidents to first responders working at a casualty site, anyone can develop PTSD.
More than half of adults report at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, such as being the victim of a serious accident, natural disaster or crime. Afterward, it is common to experience some emotional distress that usually subsides within a few weeks. Many others develop longer-term PTSD symptoms, however, especially people who experienced a physically or sexually violent event, or had a history of trauma or another psychiatric illness.
Someone is diagnosed with PTSD when they re-experience the traumatic event through nightmares or recurrent memories; avoid trauma reminders; have persistent feelings of anger, guilt or shame; isolate themselves; and suffer from sleep disturbance and irritability. Most new cases of PTSD improve within a year, but some people develop chronic symptoms, which can last many years, even decades, leading to serious conflicts at work and home.
Although PTSD is the most well-known mental health condition following exposure to a serious trauma, it is not the only negative consequence. More than half of all individuals who have PTSD are also found to have at least one other psychiatric disorder. Some patients develop major depression with strong feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and perhaps thoughts of suicide. Worsening alcohol and drug use can also follow exposure to trauma, particularly for people who previously had trouble with substance abuse.
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There are many available treatments that can relieve PTSD symptoms and improve quality of life. Medications are often helpful for symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance, negative emotions and sleep disturbances. A cornerstone of PTSD care involves talk psychotherapies, which are short-term interventions that reduce trauma-related thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Although an individual will never forget a life-threatening experience, if treatment is sought, those memories can become less intrusive and painful, and no longer interfere with having a full and productive life.
Daniella David, M.D., and Spencer Eth, M.D., are psychiatrists and PTSD experts at the Miami VA Healthcare System and UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.