Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
In the 1936 in the movie Swing Time, Fred Astaire tells a despairing Ginger Rogers that, when terrible things happen, “I pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.” Americans have long believed that almost any terrible memory can be overcome with a positive outlook and a cheerful personality. Unfortunately, some scenes are simply so horrible that they cannot be quickly forgotten.
These horrible events might seem rare, but in fact, they are quite common. According to the PTSD Alliance, 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event during their lifetime. While some people do leave the event in the past, others do not. Of those who experience a traumatic event, 20 percent go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a serious condition that impacts the quality of life of the survivor, as well as the lives of the people who love that survivor. While PTSD rarely resolves on its own, treatment options do exist and they can provide real help to those struggling with PTSD.
Symptoms in the reliving cluster can be terrifying to endure. Adults with PTSD may be flooded with memories of the traumatic event, and they may see images from the event playing in an endless loop in their minds at all times. They might experience flashbacks during the day, where their hearts race and their skin grows cold. Often, these flashbacks are triggered by something they see, smell or hear. A car backfiring might seem like a gunshot, and they’re transported to the scene of battle. A glass falling might remind them of the sound of breaking windows during a fire. They might also experience terrifying dreams that contain an immense amount of detail about the traumatic event. According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 71 to 96 percent of people who have PTSD have nightmares, and they may have those nightmares several times per week. They may also experience nightmares during very early stages of sleep, and the person often moves his or her body during the nightmare.
The person might:
- Seem numb or emotionally withdrawn
- Have difficulty remembering the event
- Seem slow and confused
- Pull away from friends and family
While the brain might be working hard to provide protection, that work isn’t truly effective. The person is still reliving the event at some level, deep beneath the surface, and the body responds by flooding the person with stress-related chemicals. The person might feel stressed and hyper alert at all times, and he or she might be easily startled or seem jumpy. The person might have a rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure, and might be unable to relax or sleep. Some people pace during the day, and others respond with extreme anger, yelling or gestures.
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that people who experienced violence as children were at high risk for PTSD as adults, and that risk persisted throughout life. In other words, the people did not “get over” the violence they experienced as children, and that original trauma continues to play a role in their lives as adults. In addition, the study suggested that people who experienced more than one violent event as a child were at higher risk that people who experienced only one event.
People who have other mental illnesses might also be at higher risk for PTSD. Researchers writing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that 80 percent of people who were diagnosed with PTSD had some other form of mental illness such as anxiety or personality disorders. It’s not yet clear how these two conditions play upon one another, and more research on this link is ongoing.
- Wartime battles
- Neglect or physical abuse
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Hearing of the sudden death of a loved one
- Terrorist attacks
- Serious car, airplane, train or boating accidents
Living With PTSD
While some people develop symptoms immediately after the event, some people develop symptoms that come and go throughout their lives. People who experience abuse as children, for example, might go through periods of relative normalcy, and then experience a resurgence of the disease when they have children of their own. Some people feel the symptoms of PTSD for decades, and they may begin to feel as though this is just a normal part of life.
Some people who develop PTSD develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. They may hope that these substances will help numb the pain and make life easier, but often, the reverse is true. Drugs and alcohol may keep the person from facing the traumatic memories head on, and without this confrontation, the PTSD will continue to grow. In addition, using drugs and alcohol can make the person feel even more isolated and cut off from loved ones, and this can also make PTSD symptoms worse.
These visits may give doctors the opportunity to spot PTSD and discuss the issue, but the person who has PTSD might be required to bring up the topic. Most doctors’ visits are quite short, after all, and some doctors may not have the time or the ability to look beyond the person’s physical complaint and determine what is really causing the symptoms the person is reporting.
Helping Someone Heal
Living with someone who has PTSD can be challenging. You may notice changes in behavior that are sudden and frightening, but the person may insist that nothing is wrong. It’s important to remember that people with PTSD may not truly understand that the symptoms they are experiencing are a direct result of trauma. Some people simply don’t know why they feel the way they do. Other people may feel that their symptoms are somehow appropriate, since they survived the situation when so many others did not. This sort of guilt can be crippling, and the person may not readily admit that problems are even occurring.
Staying supportive and remembering to listen are good first steps. The person needs to know that he or she is not alone, and that people stand at the ready to help. When you have an open line of communication like this, you can begin to discuss treatment options that can help. Medications and talk therapy can do wonders to help the person work through the traumatic event, and the person is almost certain to feel better once treatment begins. Stressing the importance of treatment is one of the most important things you can do to help someone you love recover from PTSD.