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While it’s perfectly natural to be afraid and stressed in response to certain situations, some people have lasting psychiatric effects after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Such an event may be a natural disaster, military combat, a rape or other act of violence, a bad car accident, or other scary or dangerous occurrence. However, it doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event; it could also be something traumatic like the death of a loved one. When we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we’re referring to a mental health condition triggered by such an event.

Most traumatized people struggle with some short-term effects afterwards, and seeing a mental health professional may be helpful, even if not necessary for recovery. But when a person continues to have long-term effects, they may be suffering from PTSD, and this conditions really needs to be treated by a qualified mental health professional.

If you’re concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder—either in yourself or a loved one—below is some introductory information to help you get a better sense of the condition. Only a trained mental health professional can diagnose PTSD, so please see one as soon as possible for a consultation and help.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

The signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder usually occur within three months of the traumatic event, but they can also manifest months or even years later. Which ones a person experiences, their severity, and other details vary from person to person. The symptoms are grouped into four categories. A patient must have at least one symptom from the first two categories and at least two symptoms from the latter two categories for at least one month to be diagnosed with PTSD.

  • Re-experiencing or intrusion symptoms – These can include unwanted recurring or intrusive memories of the event, frightening thoughts, flashbacks, bad dreams, and severe emotional or physical reactions to triggers that remind a person of the event. Flashbacks can be incredibly vivid, making a person believe they’re back in the event.
  • Avoidance symptoms – These relate to avoiding thoughts and memory triggers of the event. For example, a person may change their route to work to avoid the place of an accident. In general, the person stays away from objects, places, people, activities, situations, or other reminders of the trauma. And they may also shut themselves down from thinking about or recalling the event (perhaps even keeping excessively busy to prevent thinking about it), and resist talking about it.
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms – These symptoms are usually constant, rather than appearing sporadically or in response to a trigger. They include things like being easily startled, feeling chronically tense or anxious, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, irritability, outburst of anger, being overly on guard or suspicious, and self-destructive behavior. These often become disruptive to a person’s daily life.
  • Cognition and mood symptoms – Most people experience some of these symptoms for a little while after a traumatic event. When they persist for more than a month, are disruptive to daily life, and can’t be attributed to injury or substance abuse, they will be considered toward a diagnosis of PTSD. These symptoms may include difficulty remembering aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about one’s self of the world, excessive feelings of guilt or blame, feelings of detachment or estrangement, loss of interest in socializing or previously enjoyed activities, and an inability to experience joy or other positive emotions.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in Children

Generally speaking, the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are similar in children as in adults. However, there are a few additional common ones in kids that are helpful to know if you’re concerned about a child who has experienced a trauma. These include:

  • New bed wetting
  • Becoming unable or unwilling to speak, or other signs of developmental regression
  • Acting out the event while playing
  • Becoming unusually clingy or needy
  • Excessively disruptive or disrespectful behavior

Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a treatable condition, but it must be treated by a qualified mental health professional. Treatment for psychiatric conditions generally requires some trial and error to find the right combination of therapies that work best for the individual. Standard treatments for PTSD include:

  • Other medications to help manage specific symptoms like anxiety or insomnia, such as benzodiazepines
  • Psychotherapy techniques, such as talk therapy, exposure therapy (re-exposing the patient to the trauma in a carefully controlled, gradual way through use of triggers to help them face the event), and cognitive restructuring (helping the patient make sense of and address their memories and thoughts about the event)
  • Learning positive coping skills for symptoms and difficulty with daily activities
  • Lifestyle changes, such as increased exercise, spending more time outdoors, spending more time with friends and family, a stricter sleep regimen, avoiding drugs and alcohol, getting a pet, etc.
  • Regular use of stress management techniques, such as yoga or similar exercises, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, massage therapy, relaxing music, aromatherapy, hot baths, etc.
  • If the source of trauma is ongoing, as in an abusive relationship, this must be resolved.

If You Are Having Suicidal Thoughts

Some people with PTSD are at risk of suicide.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or the National Hopeline Network at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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