Sometimes, however, any of us could be subjected to catastrophic stress. Our feeling of safety in these circumstances can vanish. We could experience terror and a complete inability to know how to handle these situations that are outside of the ordinary realm of experience. These catastrophic events can include rape, physical or sexual abuse, physical attack, mugging, car-jacking, natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, etc.), fires, car accidents, plane crashes, hostage situations, school shootings, military combat, or the sudden death of a loved one. It is not only the victims of these events, but also witnesses, families of victims, and helping professionals who can develop severe stress symptoms that can last for months or even years after the event.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the term used to characterize people who have endured highly stressful and frightening experiences and who are undergoing distress caused by memories of that event. It is as if the person just cannot let go of the experience. The event comes back to haunt them. The anxiety experienced during or immediately after a catastrophic event is called traumatic stress. When the symptoms last several months after the event, it is called post-traumatic stress. PTSD can last for years after the original trauma and may not become evident initially. For example, an individual may witness a murder as a child, but not experience the associated stress until mid-life.
Some people are more likely to develop PTSD than others. Experts are not sure why some people develop PTSD after a relatively minor trauma while others exposed to great trauma do not. Those who are very young or very old are more vulnerable. PTSD is also associated with intelligence (those with a higher level of intelligence are less likely to suffer from PTSD). Individuals who already suffer from anxiety disorders, some personality disorders, or depression seem more likely to get PTSD after extreme trauma. It seems that the more vulnerable one feels in dealing with the world, the more likely one is to develop PTSD.
Trauma of great severity is more likely to produce PTSD than lesser traumas. For example, it was found with Vietnam War veterans that prolonged combat with sniping and air bombardment produced PTSD more often than brief exposure to combat with few weapons. It has also been found that traumas between people (such as sexual assault and muggings) are more likely to produce PTSD than natural disasters like earthquakes or floods.
Symptoms of PTSD
People can be considered to have PTSD when they have been exposed to an extreme trauma, the symptoms last at least a month in duration, and the symptoms cause excessive distress so that social functioning and job performance are impaired. One sign of PTSD is that the traumatic event is relived repeatedly in the person’s mind – and this appears in the form of “flashbacks,” recurrent images, thoughts or dreams about the event...and even nightmares. Reminders of the event can cause distress – so many people go out of their way to avoid places and events that remind them of the catastrophic occurrence. Many people experience anxiety, restlessness, concentration difficulties, decreased memory, irritability, sleeplessness, hypervigilance, or an exaggerated startle response. Some people even experience what is called “survivor’s guilt” – because they survived and others did not or because of certain things they may have had to do in order to survive.
There are three main clusters of PTSD symptoms, and all three of these groupings must be present for a diagnosis of PTSD.
Intrusive Symptoms: Intrusive and repetitive memories which stir up negative feelings experienced during the trauma can overwhelm a person. These memories can appear in the form of:
- flashbacks (a feeling of reliving the trauma)
- frequent, distressing memories of the trauma
- emotional and physical distress when traumatic memories are triggered.
These can include:
- being easily startled or feeling jumpy
- hypervigilance (feeling “on guard” even when the situation is safe)
- concentration difficulties
- outbursts of anger and irritability
- problems in falling asleep or staying asleep.
Avoidance Symptoms: People suffering from PTSD go out of their way to escape the overpowering memories and arousal symptoms. This pattern of behavior can include:
- avoiding places, people or situations that serve as reminders of the trauma
- avoiding thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma
- memory loss about some aspects of the traumatic event
- feeling emotionally numb
- feeling estranged or detached from other people
- feelings of hopelessness and helplessness about the future
- decreased interest in pleasurable activities.
It is important to remember that PTSD is a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. There is no shame in experiencing these symptoms, nor is having these symptoms a sign of weakness. Help is available from trained professionals so that in most cases, with the appropriate effort and courage, the symptoms can disappear completely, or at least substantially decrease and become more manageable.
Next week we'll post about getting help for PTSD. You can also visit one of our websites for more information: Dr. Quintal & Associates - Sarasota Counseling or PTSD Treatment