Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Condition

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Exposure to traumatic and life-threatening events like military combat, natural disasters, accidents and serious illnesses can trigger PTSD — an anxiety disorder with lasting effects if left untreated.   

People with PTSD live with intense fear and stress long after the trauma is over. They relive the event through flashbacks and nightmares, resulting in unattachment and avoidance of people and things that remind them of important aspects of the event. As a result, negative thoughts and behaviors develop that disrupt their lives and don’t fade over time.

With professional help, people with PTSD can learn to manage their symptoms and lead productive lives. At Mercy, our behavioral health experts offer education, counseling and compassionate care for those suffering from PTSD.

PTSD Causes & Risk Factors

PTSD occurs in people of all ages. Risk factors associated with the disorder include being exposed to traumatic events and lacking the social support needed to develop resilience. Although we often associate PTSD with military service, many life experiences can cause the disorder.

Both genders are susceptible to emotional abuse, especially in intimate relationships. Abusers attempt to frighten, control and isolate their victims, which causes psychological damage that may lead to PTSD.

When children are exposed to repeated abuse and trauma, they can develop PTSD. The disorder negatively impacts their brain development, language skills, thinking and sense of self.

Individual events like car accidents, fires, floods and physical assaults can be so traumatic they lead to PTSD. These single-incident traumas can also occur in combat situations.

Long-term cycles of physical and emotional abuse occur with domestic violence. And because women are at higher risk for both sexual and domestic abuse, they’re more than twice as likely as men to develop PTSD (10% likelihood for women and 4% for men).

Effects of PTSD

PTSD can have long-term effects on your mental and physical health, relationships and work life. Physical and emotional effects of PTSD include:

Research shows the area of the brain that controls fear and emotion (amygdala) is more active in people with PTSD, while the part that controls memory (hippocampus) is smaller.

Frequent and chronic body pain (especially back pain) is common with PTSD. It can be caused by traumatic events like accidents or simply the increased stress and muscle tension that accompanies PTSD.

People with PTSD have difficulty feeling and expressing emotions, which can lead to marital stress and problems in other social relationships.

PTSD Symptoms

PTSD symptoms usually begin within three months of a traumatic event, but they can emerge later. To be considered PTSD, your symptoms must last longer than a month and be severe enough to disrupt your daily life. Types of symptoms typically seen in PTSD include the following.

Frequently reliving the trauma through nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, or other psychological distress.

Avoiding people and activities that are reminders of the trauma, and avoiding psychological pain by disconnecting emotionally.

Constantly feeling ‘on guard’ for danger, resulting in sleep problems, irritability, lack of concentration and a heightened startle reflex.

Difficulty recalling parts of the trauma, negative thought patterns and feelings, and a reduced interest in enjoyable activities.

 

Talk with your Mercy doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms following a traumatic incident. He or she will evaluate your symptoms and discuss the care that’s right for you.

When children are exposed to frightening or traumatizing experiences, it’s normal for them to feel anxious and have some behavioral changes. But if their symptoms last for several weeks, contact your child’s Mercy pediatrician for an evaluation.

 

PTSD symptoms in children and adolescents include detachment, irritability, trouble sleeping, dreaming about the traumatic event and reenacting it through play. Young children may revert to bedwetting, have separation anxiety or even forget how to speak. Adolescents may display self-destructive behavior and guilt. Because PTSD in children increases suicide risk, it’s important to share any concerns with your child’s Mercy pediatrician.    

Diagnosing PTSD

If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of PTSD, don’t go it alone. Living with PTSD is manageable with the right care. Mercy’s behavioral health professionals offer diagnostic and treatment services that help you find recovery and healing. 

The diagnosis of your condition by a Mercy behavioral health provider is the next step. To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have all of the following symptoms for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom (flashbacks, bad dreams or frightening thoughts)
  • At least one avoidance symptom (staying away from things associated with the trauma or avoiding thoughts about it)
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (tension, insomnia, easily startled or angry outbursts)
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms (negative thoughts, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, memory loss relating to the trauma or distorted feelings of guilt

Mercy behavioral health professionals may perform additional psychological assessments to diagnose adult PTSD, which could include:

  • Perform a physical exam
  • Review your medical history and symptoms
  • Order lab work or other tests
  • Use screening tools to help with your diagnosis
  • Refer to the American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines for diagnosing behavioral health conditions

Screening and assessment for PTSD in children may also include:

  • Collecting information from a variety of perspectives (parents, teachers, caregivers, etc.)
  • Identifying the impact on the child’s current and future development

PTSD Treatment Options

At Mercy, we understand that partnering with family members results in better outcomes for our PTSD patients. Your Mercy care team will work with you and your family to develop an individualized treatment plan after receiving a diagnosis. Effective treatment for PTSD often includes psychotherapy (talk therapy) or medication. Watch for changes in your symptoms and behaviors throughout treatment for PTSD. Your Mercy provider will work with you to monitor treatment effectiveness, identify side effects and make adjustments over time.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) - CBT for PTSD is highly effective as both short-term and long-term treatment. This type of therapy is focused on identifying, understanding and changing thinking and behavior patterns. It can be provided individually or in a group setting.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – Recalling traumatic memories while a specially trained therapist directs side-to-side eye movements or hand tapping to lessen pain from re-experiencing them
  • Child & Adolescent Therapy – Using talk therapy with family involvement to minimize additional trauma for the child
  • Integrative Therapies  Incorporating alternative therapies to the overall treatment plan, such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation and others

Anti-anxiety medications can help relieve PTSD symptoms and make therapy more effective. Certain serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are FDA-approved to treat adults with PTSD and are often the medication of choice. Talk with your Mercy behavioral health professional about the benefits and risks of these medications, as well as any other options that might be right for you.

  • Outpatient mental health programs  Most PTSD treatments are provided on an outpatient basis, allowing you to maintain work, social and family responsibilities. Outpatient treatment also lets family members play a more active role in supporting recovery.
  • Inpatient mental health programs  In cases where patients can’t reach their treatment goals and reduce symptoms as an outpatient, inpatient care may be required.

Turning to alcohol or drugs to self-manage PTSD only makes the condition worse and could lead to self-destructive behaviors. When you’re diagnosed with PTSD and dependent on drugs or alcohol, you’re considered to have a dual diagnosis. Your Mercy care team understands that a comprehensive treatment plan focused on the causes of PTSD will often include treatment for drug or alcohol use.

 

While not all treatments are available in all areas, Mercy offers a variety of services across the communities we serve. Our behavioral health professionals can direct you to the best possible care.

Getting the right treatment is critical. Don’t let embarrassment prevent you from getting help for PTSD. Remember, 1 in 5 Americans is affected by mental illnesses, which are medical conditions like any other that require treatment to improve. At Mercy, you’ll receive care with dignity and respect. We’re dedicated to helping you return to a satisfying and healthy life.

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