- You may have PTSD if you experienced trauma and have severe reactions when reminded of the event.
- People with PTSD have high levels of stress hormones long after the traumatic event is over.
- PTSD is usually treated with therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after you experience or witness an extremely frightening event.
It’s normal to have a hard time coping with a traumatic event, but if you have symptoms like nightmares or flashbacks that aren’t going away after a month, you may have PTSD.
Around one in every 11 people in the US will experience PTSD in their lifetime, but there are ways to treat the condition and help ease your symptoms.
Here’s what you need to know about PTSD and how to find out if you have it.
What is PTSD?
When you go through a traumatic or life-threatening event, your body goes into a “fight-or-flight” mode to help you survive. When this happens, your body releases hormones like adrenaline that spike your heart rate, quicken your breath, and make you hyper-aware of your surroundings.
For most people, these stress hormones subside once the traumatic event is over. But people with PTSD continue to have high levels of stress hormones long after the trauma is over, causing symptoms like being easily startled and constantly going over the trauma in your mind.
PTSD makes your body stay in survival mode so that you are prepared if it happens again, says Julian Ford, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut who specializes in trauma treatment.
You may be more likely to develop PTSD if you experience other mental disorders like depression or anxiety, or if you have a history of substance abuse. Genetics may also play a role, and your PTSD risk may be higher if you have a parent with a mental health condition.
When you develop PTSD after going through a traumatic event, you may have symptoms like:
- Experiencing unwanted memories of the event
- Severe emotional or physical reactions like increased heart rate when something reminds you of the event
- Blank spots in your memory of the event
- Feelings of detachment from your family and friends
- Difficulty feeling positive emotions or enjoying activities
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world
- Trouble sleeping
- Feeling like you have to be constantly on guard
- Reckless behavior, like driving too fast or binge drinking
Here is a quiz based on the PCL-C for DSM-IV checklist that may help you determine if you should seek help for this condition:
A licensed mental health professional can diagnose PTSD by discussing the trauma and your symptoms. PTSD assessments tend to look at four categories of symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through unwanted memories, nightmares, or reminders.
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma in a way that interferes with your daily life.
- Changes in thinking and mood including emotional distress, feeling unable to trust or be close to other people, self-blame, or hopelessness.
- Being on guard or over-reactive, including being easily irritated or feeling on edge even when you are safe.
There are several different treatments available, but psychotherapy is considered the primary treatment for PTSD.
“PTSD is treated by psychological therapy that helps you to gain control of bad memories,” Ford says. “The therapist provides support and guidance so that you can face the memories and regain your self-confidence and self-worth instead of feeling helpless or hopeless.”
Therapy for PTSD
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of mental health therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. For example, CBT can help you learn what triggers your trauma symptoms and how to challenge fearful thoughts. CBT has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms for people experiencing PTSD. CBT may also be a good option for children with PTSD, as there is a version of the therapy called Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT) that is specifically designed for children and teens.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a type of therapy in which a therapist will ask you to recall memories of your trauma while guiding you through a series of eye movements that help change the way your brain processes the traumatic memories. EMDR works quickly and has been shown to help resolve PTSD symptoms in as few as three 90-minute sessions. EMDR is a new technique than CBT and some studies suggest that it may be more effective, though more research is needed.
- Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy is a type of behavioral therapy in which you are exposed to memories or reminders of the traumatic event while learning how to cope with symptoms that come up in response. This can involve repeatedly telling the story of your trauma in detail or even going into a virtual reality setting that mimics where your trauma occurred.
Medications for PTSD
Your doctor may also choose to prescribe medications to help treat your PTSD symptoms. Some commonly-used medications for PTSD include:
- Antidepressants like sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) may be prescribed to help with symptoms of anxiety or depression that may be linked to PTSD. These medications can also help with sleep and concentration problems.
- Anti-anxiety medications like clonazepam (Klonopin) help calm your nervous system and may be prescribed if your anxiety symptoms keep you from completing daily tasks. Some experts, however, recommend against using these medications, as they may make symptoms worse over the long term.
- Prazosin: Prazosin is a blood pressure medication that some doctors prescribe to help treat nightmares in people with PTSD. The research on this is uncertain, however, and recent studies have found that Prazosin may not help reduce nightmares or improve sleep.
Though medications may help lower PTSD symptoms, they are not a replacement for therapy, Ford says, as “they do not help with the unwanted memories that are the main cause of PTSD.”
PTSD is a serious mental health condition that can be distressing and difficult to cope with, but there are effective treatments available. If you think you may have PTSD, talk to your doctor about getting a PTSD evaluation or ask for a referral for a trauma specialist.