Signs & Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD, is a mental illness that occurs when individuals experience a traumatic event, a series of traumatic events, or a life-changing event that leads to feelings of severe emotional distress. When someone experiences a traumatic event, it is natural for the immediate response to be one of fear, sadness, and anxiety. However, in many cases, these feelings will eventually subside. For individuals who are struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder, these feelings do not subside, but rather increase in intensity, often leading to severe disturbances in their ability to function appropriately on a daily basis.

Any situation that elicits feelings of helplessness or victimization can potentially result in the onset of posttraumatic disorder. Some of the most common events known to lead to such severe distress can include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Deployment
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • Being the victim of rape or sexual assault
  • Being the victim of physical and/or emotional abuse and neglect
  • Plane crashes
  • Car accidents
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Research has shown that approximately 5.2 million adults suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder at some point throughout their lifetimes. It is more commonly believed to affect women, with an estimated 10% of PTSD diagnoses being given to women as compared to 5% being given to men. Yet, it is possible that this statistic is somewhat inaccurate due to the fact that women may simply be more likely to report the presence of PTSD symptoms than men are.

Causes and Risk Factors for PTSD

Professionals in the field believe that the causes and risk factors that leave an individual susceptible to developing posttraumatic stress disorder are the result of a combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors. These factors are described in more detail in the following:

Genetic: As is true for the majority of mental health disorders, there is believed to be a genetic link associated with the development of PTSD, as individuals who have first-degree relatives who suffer from this disorder are a greater risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder than are individuals without similar family histories.

Physical: Neuroimaging studies have provided evidence that people who are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder have structural differences in various parts of their brains. Additionally, the levels of serotonin and dopamine are known to be lower in individuals who experience excessive anxiety, meaning that the ways in which their brain chemicals regulate emotional responses to stress are more susceptible to leading to the onset of PTSD.

Environmental: The environment in which individuals are surrounded can have a profound impact on whether or not they will develop PTSD as the result of experiencing a traumatic event. Those who are exposed to highly stressful situations, who have witnessed violence, who have been subjected to abuse or neglect, or who grew up in environments where they were subjected to much chaos are more likely to develop PTSD.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Struggling with a preexisting mental illness
  • Family history of posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental health disorders
  • Being subjected to physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse and neglect
  • Lacking healthy coping skills
  • Lacking a strong support system

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

The signs and symptoms that may become apparent in an individual who is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder will vary from person to person depending on a number of differing factors, including things such as the type of trauma experienced, the coping skills the individual possesses, the longevity of the trauma that the person experienced, and the type of support system that the individual has around him or her. Examples of different symptoms that a person with PTSD may exhibit can include:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Vivid flashbacks that leave sufferers feelings as though are experiencing the traumatic event all over again
  • Intrusive memories about the trauma
  • Having horrific nightmares
  • Onset of physical symptoms when thinking about, or reminded of, the trauma (e.g. increased heart rate, labored breathing, excessive sweating, etc.)

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lacking the ability to remember certain details about the trauma experienced
  • No longer demonstrating an interest in things or activities that were once enjoyed
  • Avoidance of people, places, or situations that remind the individual of the trauma experienced

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Angry or aggressive outbursts
  • Constantly feeling on edge
  • Feeling chronic anxiety about being in imminent danger or harm
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Increased agitation and irritability
  • Lacking the ability to sleep
  • Concentration difficulties

However, it is important to remember there are viable treatment options for those struggling with PTSD that can significantly reduce these harmful symptoms.

If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of PTSD

There are a number of adverse effects that can arise when the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder remain unaddressed and untreated. Not only are these individuals placing themselves at risk for developing other mental illness or medical problems, but they are also at risk for the following negative ramifications if treatment is not implemented:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Chronic bodily pain
  • Social isolation
  • Decrease in appropriate occupational functioning, potentially leading to the loss of one’s job
  • Failing to develop and maintain successful, healthy interpersonal relationships
  • Familial discord
  • Development of eating disorders
  • Onset of self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

It is relatively uncommon for individuals to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms alone, as research has shown that approximately 80% of people who receive a diagnosis of PTSD also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental health disorder. Examples of the most common disorders known to occur alongside PTSD can include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Other forms of dementia
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal ideation
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