Published December 16, 2011
Over 5 million people have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any given year, according to the National Center for PTSD at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). While PTSD is more prevalent among specific social groups, the condition pervades throughout the country, affecting men, women and children. PTSD can cause life-threatening symptoms, including suicide and drug or alcohol abuse.
Most people experience trauma at some point in their lives. Traumatic events are usually terrifying, life-threatening experiences such as war, natural disaster or sexual abuse. Severe emotional responses to trauma are natural, but persistent painful responses can point to PTSD. The initial event was already devastating for an individual, and the ongoing mental health stresses of PTSD can pose long-term challenges to daily life.
There are four types of symptoms associated with PTSD. Re-experiencing symptoms cause the afflicted person to relive the traumatic event at any time. Nightmares or sensory triggers may induce a flashback. For example, the sound of a car backfiring can arouse a veteran’s memories of warfare. Avoidance is a tactic used to prevent flashbacks from being triggered. Some people stay away from movie or television images that remind them of the event, but avoidance can keep people from seeking out necessary help. Feelings of numbness are a form of avoidance. This apathy may render a person unable to feel love or positive feelings toward other people or lose interest in their old activities. Hyperarousal is exemplified by jitters or constantly feeling on-guard.
Traumatic events vary across the board, and no two people will respond to a single event identically. There are some common events that can induce PTSD, including: combat or military exposure, sexual or physical abuse during childhood, terrorist attacks, life-threatening accidents and witnessing natural disasters. War exposure, in particular, can lead to PTSD, as the situation often compounds many traumatic events into one. In addition to dealing with life-threatening situations and witnessing or causing another person’s death, veterans have often fallen victim to sexual abuse.
Some social groups are more at risk than other. The Department of Veterans Affairs says black and Latino people may run a higher risk of developing PTSD, possibly because they are more likely to encounter traumatic events. In general, military personnel are more susceptible to PTSD. As many as one in five veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD, and 38 percent of men and 55 percent of women have experienced potentially traumatizing sexual harassment during military service. As the numbers indicate, women are at greater risk for trauma and PTSD. In military and civil society, around 10 percent of women will develop PTSD, as opposed to 5 percent of men.
PTSD affects individuals on such an intense personal level that it may take some time to find the right treatment. With time and effort, effective treatment can greatly improve a person’s quality of life. Cognitive behavioral therapy has shown some of the most positive results for PTSD. Cognitive therapy is a focused and relatively short-term approach to psychological problems, primarily geared toward dealing with day-to-day feelings as opposed to early life experiences. Some therapies, like exposure therapy, slowly expose individuals to their dominating fears. Doctors may also recommend medication to relieve the symptoms. Antidepressents known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed to treat PTSD.