CW: The following post discusses post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically for people who have not served in the military. Due to the nature of the topic, information in this article may be upsetting to some readers.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can happen to anyone who’s lived through a terrible event. It often affects veterans, but it’s not exclusive to those with military service. People from all walks of life can experience extreme stress responses following trauma.
Maybe the trauma happened directly to you. Maybe you witnessed it. Either way, you could be affected by PTSD.
Having PTSD is more than being afraid during a scary event. It’s also different from feeling out-of-sorts over the next few weeks.
Rather, with PTSD, the event continues to have a hold on your life. Symptoms continue long after the danger has passed.
But no matter the cause, treatment is available. With the support of healthcare providers, it is possible to recover from PTSD and learn to navigate your life going forward. Not sure where to start? The first step is understanding this condition.
Disclaimer: this blog post should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical or mental health condition. Please see your doctor for advice and guidance regarding any specific medical or mental health concerns you may have.
PTSD stems from trauma.
Scary, terrible things happen. And as much as we want to protect ourselves and our loved ones, that’s not always possible.
Horrific events aren’t just terrible in the moment. They can also cause recurring symptoms. If that happens to you, you may be diagnosed with PTSD.
Examples of situations that trigger PTSD for some people include:
- Car accidents
- Long-term abuse
- Natural disasters
- Military combat
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Terrorist attacks
- Witnessing death
This isn’t an exclusive list. You could develop PTSD from other situations as well.
And it’s important to point out that PTSD isn’t reserved for the person pinned in the car or the victim of the attack. Onlookers can get PTSD, too. And even if you didn’t see the incident, you could develop PTSD after something awful happens to a loved one.
And it involves recurring symptoms.
It’s normal to feel terrified during a traumatic event. You’ll probably struggle over the next few days and weeks. You could feel restless or irritable. At night, you may have trouble sleeping. But over time, these issues will subside for many people.
Sometimes, though, people continue to struggle. Flashbacks and negative emotions may become commonplace, and that could be due to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Experts put PTSD symptoms into four different categories. If you have symptoms from each category that last for a month or more, you may receive a PTSD diagnosis:
Intrusive thoughts force you to re-experience the trauma again and again. You may have nightmares while sleeping. Flashbacks may strike during the day. Or you might start thinking about scary things after seeing or hearing something that reminds you of your trauma.
To ward off bad memories and troubling thoughts, you may stay away from potential triggers. Avoidance means that you don’t visit places or see people who might remind you of what happened. That could require changing your routine to avoid activities that you once did daily.
Avoidance can also happen inside your mind. You may block out thoughts about unwanted topics or shut down negative feelings. You might also refuse to discuss the event altogether.
Mood and Thinking
Symptoms in this category are often similar to the signs of depression. Negative changes in your thought patterns could leave you feeling listless or apathetic. Your mind may feel foggy. Life could seem joyless. You may be down on yourself and everyone around you. And even when you try to enjoy activities, you might find it nearly impossible to conjure up any enthusiasm.
PTSD may leave you feeling edgy or jumpy. You might feel like you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. People could inadvertently startle you. Before entering a room or stepping outside, you might go out of your way to check for danger.
During the day, you may struggle to focus on a task for any length of time. And when you head to bed, you might find yourself tossing and turning all night.
These new patterns of behavior could affect you or others. You may put yourself in risky situations, for example, like unsafe sexual encounters or heavy drinking. Loved ones may bear the brunt of your irritable moods or fits of rage.
PTSD is personal, too.
Anyone can end up with PTSD, but not everyone experiences it in the same way. Your symptoms could be entirely different from someone else’s.
For some people, PTSD development follows a linear path. Symptoms begin shortly after the traumatic event, and they don’t let up for weeks, months or years.
For others, though, several years can pass before PTSD begins. But a large span of time between the initial event and the onset of symptoms doesn’t make the condition any less valid or troubling.
PTSD can happen at any age, too.
Even young children can suffer from PTSD. Their symptoms may be somewhat different. Preschoolers sometimes act clingy or start wetting the bed. Some act out troubling scenes in their play or have bad dreams at night. Others seem to lose skills that they once had, such as being able to talk.
It’s worth emphasizing, too, that not everyone who goes through trauma will end up with PTSD. In fact, two people can live through the exact same experience, but only one may develop PTSD. Factors that can play a role include:
- Being injured
- Long-term exposure to trauma
- Other mental health disorders — your own or an immediate family member’s
- Substance abuse disorders
- Trauma in your youth
- Viewing death or a dead body
- Weak social support during recovery
On the other hand, you may be less likely to develop PTSD if you have a strong support system to help you through crises. You may be able to lean on friends, family members, mental health professionals or a support group.
And while it might not feel like it, PTSD is also common.
Although some people may be more likely to develop PTSD than others, having PTSD doesn’t mean that you’re weak or that you’ve done something wrong. There’s no shame or guilt in struggling with the effects of trauma.
It’s also not a rare condition.
Many people experience PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. Each year, about 3.5% of American adults grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts guess that about 9% of the population will receive a PTSD diagnosis someday.
And there may be many others who experience symptoms without ever being officially diagnosed.
But the good news is that PTSD treatment works.
PTSD doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. With treatment, you can learn to feel comfortable in the world again. If you suspect you have PTSD, take steps to get help. Trusted loved ones can be a good start, but you may also need professional support.
Trauma-focused psychotherapy is effective for many people. In therapy, you’ll work through your traumatic experiences. This can help you deal with your memories and adjust your thought patterns. Psychologists, clinical social workers and licensed counselors often provide these services.
You may also benefit from prescription drugs. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are commonly used in PTSD treatment. In most states, you’ll need to visit a psychiatrist or a medical doctor for a prescription.
If you develop suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or by phone at 988.
Post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t just for the military. It affects people of all situations and backgrounds. Reach out to your doctor or another trusted source if you’re experiencing ongoing symptoms of PTSD or something’s just not right. You’re not alone, and help is available.