When you think about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), what might come to mind are frontline combatants who have been exposed to shocking and harrowing warfare or survivors of a life-threatening physical or sexual assault, car accident or terror attack.
And you wouldn't be wrong.
It's not abnormal to have a strong reaction to a disturbing situation that often triggers a "fight-or-flight" response, which produces changes in the body to help it defend against danger. And while most people will eventually recover, others will suffer extreme stress and anxiety well after the danger has passed.
That's PTSD, which affects about 7 or 8 people out of every 100 at some point in their lives. It usually surfaces within three months of the event (yet can stay hidden until years afterward).
But there is so much more to PTSD. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Some people are more resilient than others and might have stronger coping mechanisms. But anyone can develop PTSD, at any age. And although any serious event can set it in motion, you need not to be the victim of the actual event to develop it.
PTSD can affect a witness to an occurrence or someone who has a close friend or family member who has been directly exposed to a violent or life-threatening event. Hearing repeated details about a harrowing episode or experiencing the death of a loved one could also trigger PTSD.
PTSD shouldn't go ignored, because the symptoms can grow worse with time and if left untreated can interfere with every aspect of everyday life, taking a heavy toll on work, sleep and overall physical health. It can lead to depression, substance abuse, disordered eating and guilt or blame. It can cause an overall decline in the quality of life, robbing the sufferer of joy and close relationships.
How do you know when it's "normal" anxiety and when it's PTSD?
For one, if it persists for a month or longer, it may indicate PTSD. Always check with your health care provider if you suspect PTSD or are having trouble coping with anxiety and stress related to a shocking, scary or dangerous event.
Here are some symptoms you should not ignore, even if they come and go.
- Extreme volatility, agitation or anger
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Flashbacks; reliving the event
- Racing heart or sweating
- Nightmares or bad dreams
- Grief or despair; feelings that the world is dangerous and no one can be trusted
- Easily startled by a loud noise or surprise
- Trouble sleeping or concentrating
- Frightening thoughts
- Avoiding objects, places or events that are reminders of the traumatic event
Seek professional help if symptoms last longer than a month and cause great distress and disruption in your life. PTSD can be successfully treated and managed with of medications, psychotherapy ("talk" therapy), relaxation therapy, exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, mindfulness therapy, and, of course, the love and support of friends and family.
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