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What is PTSD?

by Al Siebert, PhD, Director, The Resiliency Center

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not a new condition even though the phrase was first used when the syndrome was seen in many Vietnam war veterans. After prior wars many war veterans who remained isolated from others were described as being "shell shocked."

PTSD is not a mental illness. It develops in normal people after an extremely traumatic experience.

People with PTSD experience a wide array of symptoms including: insomnia, flashbacks, nightmares, extreme detachment, and numbness. Memory loss, depression, substance abuse, marital and job-related difficulties are commonly seen in those suffering from PTSD. Physical problems occurring along with PTSD include: asthma, stomach distress, high blood pressure, and heart irregularities.

Symptoms generally appear shortly following the traumatic event, however, it is common for symptoms to appear months later. PTSD symptoms can be categorized into three groups:

Intrusion - this includes "flashbacks" -- suddenly feeling back in the experience, inability to stop thinking about the traumatic event, moments of fear and panic, and nightmares.

Avoidance - Avoidance symptoms include avoiding interpersonal relationships. In an effort to avoid opening up emotionally to others, the individual will cut off close ties to family and friends. This leads to occupational instability, marital problems, family discord, difficulties with children, and divorces.

Individuals with PTSD will often isolate themselves from others because they tend to have difficulty controlling their feelings. They may experience being flooded by strong emotions or feel no emotions. Avoidance helps the person avoid any situation that might trigger their feelings.

Hyper-vigilant - PTSD sufferers often expect that a traumatic situation like the one that created the PTSD may happen again at any moment. They have strong startle responses. Living in a constant state of fear and hyper-vigilance makes it difficult to maintain activities of daily living. Constant high alertness may result in poor concentration, insomnia, and memory loss.

Lifetime Progress

Vietnam veterans with PTSD were found to have profound problems in their daily lives. Efforts to suppress their feelings and memories often included alcohol and drug abuse. This could escalate into physical abuse and destruction of property, and lead to a police record and unemployment.

The symptoms of PTSD can fluctuate, although for some individuals symptoms may be constant and severe. Some older war veterans who report a lifetime of mild symptoms experience significant increases following retirement, severe medical illness, or being reminded of their war experiences by media reports of current war events.

There is no medical cure for PTSD, although medications can help ease associated symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve sleep. Sufferers can overcome their symptoms and improve their relationships in group sessions in which they relive the traumatic experience under controlled conditions to work through the trauma until they gain control over the memories.

See the guidelines for "Becoming a Resilient Survivor:"

Al Siebert has studied mental health for over thirty years. He is the Director of The Resiliency Center and author of The Resiliency Advantage and The Survivor Personality.

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