Understanding PTSD

Your house catches fire, and you return home to rubble. You escape a shooting at a gas station or watch footage of one on television. A loved one is killed in a tragic car accident. Your best friend is shot and killed, or you watch a parent suffer before dying. Many Detroiters face tragedies like … Continued

Understanding PTSD

Your house catches fire, and you return home to rubble. You escape a shooting at a gas station or watch footage of one on television. A loved one is killed in a tragic car accident. Your best friend is shot and killed, or you watch a parent suffer before dying.

Many Detroiters face tragedies like this daily, and some are left with post-traumatic stress disorder. This condition develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or traumatic event. But many people don’t understand what is happening to them. June 27, PTSD National Awareness Day, is a perfect time to assess mental health and get help if you or a loved one needs it.

While anyone can experience PTSD, some people are more at risk than others. People who have encountered multiple traumatic events in their lives have a higher risk of developing PTSD because there are more triggers for their flashbacks. And people who already suffer from anxiety or depression are more likely to develop PTSD because of how their brains process stress chemicals and hormones, which may make them more susceptible to PTSD symptoms.

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second bodily changes to help defend against danger or avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People with PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when not in danger.

Signs and Symptoms

While most but not all traumatized people experience short-term symptoms, the majority do not develop ongoing PTSD. Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event. Some experiences, like the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one, can also cause PTSD. Symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward.

Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies; some people recover within six months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.

A doctor with experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all the following for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

Re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. The symptoms can start from the person’s thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing symptoms.

Avoidance symptoms include:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms, and these symptoms may cause a person to change their personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

Arousal and reactivity symptoms include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Are you feeling tense or “on edge”?
  • Are you having difficulty sleeping?
  • Have angry outbursts?

Arousal symptoms are usually constant instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic events. These symptoms can make the person feel stressed and angry, making it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

Cognition and mood symptoms include:

  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event but are not due to injury or substance use. These symptoms can make the person feel alienated or detached from friends or family.

It is natural to have some of these symptoms for a few weeks after a dangerous event. When the symptoms last more than a month, seriously affect one’s ability to function, and are not due to substance use, medical illness, or anything except the event itself, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.

Do children react differently than adults?

Children and teens can react to trauma, but some of their symptoms may not be the same as adults. Signs are sometimes seen in very young children (less than six years old). These symptoms can include:

  • Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
  • Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult

Older children and teens are more likely to show symptoms like those seen in adults and may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or death and may have thoughts of revenge.

If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing signs of PTSD, contact The Wellness Plan Medical Center at 313-875-4200 or visit wellplan.com.