Understanding the basics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


When people survive a traumatic event that threatens their life or safety, they may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).    Not everyone will go on to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, and some people will recover naturally.  However a substantial number of people do go on to develop the condition, especially those who have faced a particularly severe traumatic event.EAP photo


These events can include car accidents, natural disasters, war and physical or sexual assault amongst others.  The events may be happening directly to the person who develops PTSD, or they might be watching something happening to someone else.  As the incident is occurring they usually think they (or the person they are watching) is about to be seriously injured, or killed.  Afterwards the person may experience feelings of extreme fear or panic, as though they are reliving the event.


The person will often attempt to evade the traumatic memory by avoiding reminders of the event.  However the memory, as if imprinted in the mind, will repeatedly find ways to expresses itself.  The traumatic memories most commonly surface through nightmares or flashbacks while awake.  Other symptoms can include strong physical and emotional reactions such as panic or heart palpitations, feeling wound up or irritable, and being emotionally numb and detached.  Aggressive outbursts may also occur, however symptoms will vary greatly from person to person.


PTSD can cause significant disruption to a person’s everyday life and relationships so it is important to seek help from a medical or mental health professional should PTSD symptoms persist for more than two weeks after the event.  The most effective evidence based treatment today for PTSD is trauma-focused psychological therapy which aims to confront the traumatic memory and help the person become aware of the automatic thoughts and beliefs that are linked to the experience.  Recovery can also be facilitated by engaging with supportive and caring networks, educating oneself about the effects of trauma, and getting back into normal every day routines such as work or study.


Recovery times from PTSD vary dramatically.  They depend on the severity of the trauma, how quickly treatment was provided, and the pre-existing personality of the patient. Therefore setting personal realistic goals, rewarding positive steps and finding ways to relax and enjoy life are an important part of the process.   Family members, friends or carers should also be involved in the recovery process where possible.  This can prove difficult as a person struggling with PTSD can become distant, irritable and detached from reality.  The person may not be as engaged as they once were, or their behaviour could be noticeably different after the traumatic event.   This can be upsetting for family and friends, so taking care of your own needs and health as a person travelling alongside is crucial.  It is important to note that the changes in behaviour are part of the condition, and that PTSD symptoms can be significantly reduced with professional help. Simply listening to the person, giving them space when needed and sharing quality time together can go a long way towards supporting the overall recovery process.


By Shelly Morrison