What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological condition that develops after exposure to traumatic experiences. Oftentimes this condition is thought of in relation to military personnel; however, the impacts of PTSD can reach people in all walks of life. Given the nature of events that occur in our country and world on a daily basis (shootings, war conflicts, etc.), I thought it may be beneficial to outline some information about PTSD that could help direct people in how to recognize symptoms and what to do to manage those symptoms if they arise. 

How is it Diagnosed?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, fifth edition (APA, 2013) there are 5 main criteria that need to be met to qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. First, a person must have been exposed to an actual or threatened trauma (serious injury, assault, death, etc.) either directly themselves or in witnessing or hearing about these events impacting others. Associated with an exposure to a traumatic event, the development of intrusive symptoms (memories, dreams, etc.), avoidance symptoms, increased arousal or reactivity, and negative changes in mood or cognition may be indicative of a diagnosis of PTSD. 

Following exposure to a traumatic experience, it may be typical for individuals to have some negative reactions and/or symptoms; however, the expectation would be for these to resolve relatively quickly on their own. It is when those symptoms do not resolve that an individual may benefit from seeking follow-up assessment regarding a potential PTSD diagnosis, as well as subsequent treatment if indicated. 

Although not an exhaustive list, some events that may result in the development of PTSD include: a serious accident, a house fire, experiencing or witnessing abuse of any sort, serious health events, and loss of a loved one. 

There are different theories regarding why some people develop PTSD when exposed to certain events where others are exposed to the same or similar events but do not develop any symptoms. At the simplest level, development of these symptoms is likely adaptive in nature and related to the “Fight or Flight” response. People may make assumptions or evaluations about their experience which then contributes to reinforcement of their symptoms.

In assessing if a diagnosis is warranted, a provider will likely conduct a clinical interview in which specific questions about a traumatic event, as well as symptoms associated with that event are discussed. From there, the provider and individual seeking support can work collaboratively to develop plans for future treatment and discuss the options for different treatment approaches. 

How is it treated? 

There are numerous psychotherapeutic approaches that can be beneficial in helping to manage symptoms of PTSD. The specific therapeutic approaches that are considered “strongly recommended” for treatment of PTSD include: Cognitive behavioral therapy, Cognitive processing therapy, Cognitive therapy, and Prolonged exposure. Additional therapeutic approaches which are “conditionally recommended” include: Brief eclectic psychotherapy, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, Narrative exposure therapy, and Medications. 

There may be certain contraindications to specific therapeutic approaches and ultimately the treatment approach utilized should be mutually agreed upon by the provider and the patient. Treatment may consist of weekly to twice weekly sessions to address specific symptoms and the functional impact that symptoms are having on an individual’s daily life. Symptoms should be closely monitored throughout the course of treatment to ensure the effectiveness of the therapeutic approaches being used and to support a person’s overall progression towards symptom management. 

Things to consider…

Any mental health condition can carry a stigma and PTSD definitely carries a stigma of its own. People may be reluctant to seek an assessment or services for their symptoms due to beliefs that treatment may mean they are “weak,” or there is something wrong with them in that they cannot manage their symptoms on their own. According to the National Comorbidity Survey Replication 3.6% of adults had a diagnosis of PTSD in the last year. Based on the 2020 census, this would mean that in the last year over 9 million adults in the US would have qualified for a diagnosis. This is likely much more common than people realize, but it is unclear how many people actually seek support from those who may benefit from it. 

No treatment can guarantee success, but there is a lot of research to support interventions that can at least lead to symptom improvement. If you or a loved one has experienced a traumatic event, consider looking into the treatments that are available. Perhaps you just need some short term support, or maybe you need something a little longer term; either way, support is available. It can be healthy to talk about these experiences, just keep in mind that there are professionals out there who specialize in helping to support people in managing these symptoms. 

Some additional resources

National Center for PTSD

National Alliance on Mental Illness 

Veterans Families United