Understanding and Coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
By Jan Silver Maguire
Last November I had the privilege of working on Homeward Bound, a national fundraising telethon presented by Haven from the Storm Foundation that supports military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. Programs and organizations like these are vital, as the incidence of PTSD among our military veterans is truly alarming. Recent studies reveal that approximately one in five veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD.
For those unfamiliar with post-traumatic stress disorder – also called post-traumatic stress injury – it is an anxiety disorder most likely to occur after an individual experiences a traumatic event. Military combat, child abuse, sexual assault, a major car accident, terrorist attack or natural disaster such as an earthquake are all crises that can trigger PTSD. Approximately 8% of Americans will struggle with PTSD at some point in their lives, and women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition.
Many individuals who live through or witness severe trauma can experience stress-related reactions or difficulty coping, but do eventually improve. People with PTSD, however, get trapped in a chronic “fight-or-flight” response, a primitive physiological reflex that prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze in the face of life-threatening danger even when the danger has long passed. Some individuals are also more susceptible to developing PTSD than others. Risk factors that have been identified include family instability, lack of social support after the event, a previous history of mental illness, a prior traumatic event, and a biological or genetic predisposition.
A person struggling with PTSD may experience a variety of symptoms including reliving the event in the form of flashbacks, recurring dreams or nightmares, and fearful thoughts. Exposure to certain words, sounds or situations can also elicit reliving the trauma. For example, the sound of a helicopter or car backfiring may bring back frightening memories for a combat veteran. An individual with PTSD may feel emotionally numb, guilty, or depressed, and have an inability or lack of desire to engage in relationships. They may also avoid crowds or places that evoke memories of the event. Additional manifestations of PTSD include hyper-arousal symptoms like extreme vigilance, tension, irritability, rage, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating or retaining a job, as well as substance abuse.
If you think that you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, take heart – there are a number of effective treatments available. One first line-treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, a psychotherapeutic intervention that focuses on thoughts and beliefs to discourage self-destructive behavior and improve coping skills. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a trauma-focused treatment which combines cognitive, exposure and body-centered approaches. EMDR is said to be particularly useful for clients who have difficulty discussing their experiences. Antidepressants have also proven effective for treating PTSD, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like paroxetine (Paxil) and sertraline (Zoloft).
Several research studies indicate that complementary and alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction may also help alleviate symptoms of PTSD.
Jan Silver Maguire is a freelance copywriter specializing in mental health and wellness. She has a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University-Chicago. Visit her website at www.jansilvermaguire.com.