what is post traumatic stress disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be caused by a wide range of things. Any traumatic experience

In this article, we’re taking a look at a question we hear often – what is post traumatic stress disorder?

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

All living creatures have basic instincts toward survival. We all intuitively know to seek food when hungry, and to seek warmth when temperatures are freezing. We all have the flight-or-fight instinct embedded, which automatically gears our bodies up for self-protection.

When it comes to human creatures, however, there is a difference in how these instincts work. Instead of simply moving forward as normal once the discomfort or danger has passed, the brain of a human is able to hold onto the experience for much longer. When the experience of facing danger is kept in the forefront of our minds and bodily reactions for much longer than is necessary for our actual survival, mental health disorders can result.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a self-descriptive term for the situation of living with ongoing and debilitating stress after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. In order for this normal and adaptive stress response to qualify as a mental health disorder, it must meet at least two criteria for persistence and severity. The stress response to the trauma must have lasted for at least a month after the actual danger has passed, and the symptoms must cause significant impairment for the sufferer or those surrounding.

History of PTSD

PTSD was first observed by doctors following the events of World War I. It became apparent that the soldiers who were returning from the war were not able to resume their civilian lives without difficulty. Some were mysteriously mute, others appeared to be in a comatose state. With their limited knowledge of the time, physicians concluded that these soldiers must have experienced brain damage relating to being in close proximity to exploding bombs and gunfire. The term “shell shocked” was used to describe the state of these poor veterans.

By World War II, another hypothesis was developing to describe the debilitating conditions of those exposed to war. It was rightly determined that the wounds that these soldiers and prisoners of war were carrying were not due to physical trauma but to psychological trauma. Being repeatedly exposed to the threat of death and the plight of human suffering – as well as being called upon to enact these conditions on the enemy – resulted in psychological conditions which we now know to describe as
PTSD.

The condition of PTSD gained support during the Vietnam War era, as returning soldiers and their supporters were learning to advocate for themselves. Suffering from the disorder was no longer considered to be a sign of weak character, but was recognized as a valid response to the horrors of war. Any kind, caring, person would be expected to recoil in horror from being surrounded by death and to suffer severe anxiety due to not ever knowing when their own time would come. It was these veterans who insisted that the diagnosis of PTSD be included within psychiatric diagnostic manuals.

Over time, it became readily recognized that it was not only exposure to war that brought on the symptoms of PTSD. Any situation in which a person believed that life was being threatened could produce the symptoms, including when that life was not directly his or her own. Being a victim of rape, physical abuse, or torture; being faced with the threat of natural and man-made disasters; and being repeatedly exposed to the aftermath of such events are all universally considered to be traumatic. When it comes to determining whether an experienced event is traumatic, personal thresholds for tolerating threat are also increasingly taken into consideration. What one person considers traumatic, another may not.

Symptoms of PTSD

Along with the criteria of being exposed to a traumatic event, stress reaction lasting at least a month, and the stress-causing disruption in daily life, there are other symptoms that contribute to the diagnosis of PTSD. In order to qualify, these symptoms must be directly related to the traumatic event that was experienced or witness and must have only surfaced after such event. Those who suffer from these symptoms in the absence of an activating trauma will want to explore other options for diagnosis.

Intrusive Recollection

A person suffering from PTSD will often experience unwanted, intrusive, thoughts related to the traumatic event. This can take the form of flashbacks, where a person is swept away by imagining that he or she is back within the threatening situation. It can also take the form of distressing, recurrent nightmares, and can manifest as negative thoughts and feelings which seem to come out of nowhere during the course of a day. A person’s unconscious thoughts about the trauma can also result in physiological responses, such as anxiety and panic.

Avoidance

Another sign of PTSD is the tendency to want to avoid situations that trigger thoughts and feelings about the trauma. While it can be considered healthy to avoid things that cause us emotional and mental harm, in the case of a PTSD sufferer, these attempts to stay safe can cross over into not being able to perform daily tasks. In extreme cases, the avoidance can progress to the point of not wanting to leave the house or interact with other people.

Negative Mood

As one can imagine, continually feeling as though one’s life is in danger is not conducive to feeling very positive about life. A person with PTSD is at risk of developing feelings of guilt and inadequacy, as they will misplace the blame for the condition on their own inability to cope. He or she may develop the belief that life will not ever get better, or that danger is lurking around every corner.

Hyperarousal

With the belief that danger can become a reality at any moment, a person suffering from PTSD is operating on continual overdrive. Getting adequate sleep can become problematic, as the body simply refuses to calm down from the flight-or-fight response. This same mechanism can contribute to the lack of ability to relax and enjoy activities, and can manifest as being startled at the drop of a hat.