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Spotlight on mental health: post-traumatic stress disorder

Millions of people around the world experience traumatic events at some point in their lifetime. The impact trauma can have on someone’s mental health has increasingly become more and more recognised over the last decade.

Here, we look into what events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), symptoms to look out for and how you can get on the road to recovery.

What is stress and how can it affect your health?
Dr Martin Baggaley

Details

  • What is PTSD? What is PTSD?

    A traumatic event can happen to anyone and more often than not, it comes without warning. Something that’s beyond your control, frightening or potentially life-threatening can leave you feeling distressed. It may also affect you for some time afterwards.

    Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events, but most people will feel emotional, shaky or anxious. This is known as an acute stress reaction, which usually fades within days or weeks. But if this reaction doesn’t go away, it can turn into PTSD, which is more severe and long lasting.

  • What events can cause PTSD? What events can cause PTSD?

    Because everyone is different, some events will severely affect some people, but not others. However, events that can cause trauma include:

    • being diagnosed with a serious illness
    • being involved in, or witnessing, a serious car accident
    • someone close to you dying suddenly or becoming injured
    • being taken hostage or assaulted
    • being a prisoner-of-war or experiencing war (war veterans)
    • natural disasters, such as experiencing an earthquake
    • sexual abuse or domestic violence

    You can also experience trauma by witnessing another person in trauma, or by hearing about a trauma that a friend or relative has gone through.

  • What are the symptoms of PTSD? What are the symptoms of PTSD?

    Most people will be affected by a traumatic event to some degree. The important thing is to recognise when it may be affecting you severely or interfering with your everyday life.

    Symptoms of PTSD usually start shortly after the trauma, but in some people, they can be delayed for several months.

    There are three ‘clusters’ of symptoms associated with PTSD.

    Continuously re-experiencing the trauma

    After a traumatic event, it’s common to 'relive' it over and over. You may have flashbacks, nightmares or perhaps even see the event happening in your mind. You may get physical sensations, such as sweating or smelling things that are associated with the event.

    Flashbacks can be triggered by seemingly normal events. For example, a certain smell or a place might cause a flashback.

    Avoidance and numbing

    Reliving an experience again and again can be distressing, so you may try to distract yourself. Steering clear of places or people that remind you of the trauma is also a common sign of PTSD. Or you simply may feel numb to any pain or feelings you have towards the event.

    Increased arousal

    You might find that you’re constantly on edge or alert a lot of the time. After such a traumatic experience, many people constantly look out for danger and can’t relax. This is known as hypervigilance, and you’ll probably feel anxious, or find it hard to sleep or concentrate on tasks.

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  • I have PTSD - how can I cope with it? I have PTSD - how can I cope with it?

    PTSD can be debilitating but there is so much out there that can help you cope with everyday life, as well as recovering from it.

    The most vital step is to seek help and support. Try not to shut down – speak to friends, family and your doctor. There are many treatment options that your doctor can talk you through. And if one type of treatment doesn’t work, it’s good to try something else. People react differently to different types of therapy.

    Try your best to get back into your usual routine. This will bring some normality and comfort into your life. Make sure you eat well, exercise and spend time with people that you trust. Being around close friends and family should never be underestimated.

    Don’t cope by blocking out emotions or anxiety with alcohol or drugs. Although it may make you feel better in the short term, it will only make things worse in the long term.

  • The road to recovery The road to recovery

    There is a wide range of psychological and medicine-based approaches to treat PTSD. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of evidence to suggest which one is most effective. Therefore, it’s best to talk through your options with your doctor, as well as maybe a friend or family member. This will help you find the best approach for you.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information

    Mental Health Foundation The Mental Health Foundation is a charity that carries out research and offers information about many areas of mental health. This article compliments our content about post-traumatic stress disorder and has links to help and advice lines.
    The Calm Zone

    CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a charity that exists primarily to prevent male suicide. Through their confidential helpline and website, they offer support for all men when things go wrong. CALM’s article about PTSD describes the different feelings that someone with the condition may have and has a thorough section on possible treatment options.

    Sources

    • Forneris CA, Gartlehner G, Brownley KA. Interventions to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med 2013; 44(6):635–50
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder: key facts. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published November 2012
    • Bisson J. Post-traumatic stress disorder. BMJ 2007; 334:789. doi:10.1136/bmj.39162.538553.80
    • The Symptoms of PTSD. National Alliance on Mental Illness. www.nami.org, accessed 24 October 2013
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