What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a trauma or stressor-related disorder that can develop in people who have experienced a traumatic, life-threatening or catastrophic event.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs describes it as: “a psychological response to the experience of intense traumatic events, including those that threaten life. For military veterans, the trauma may relate to direct combat duties, being in a dangerous war zone, or taking part in peacekeeping missions under difficult and stressful conditions.”[1]

Once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue and sometimes known as combat stress, PTSD first became recognised internationally after World War 1.  It is most commonly associated with veterans, although anyone, including children, can develop PTSD. It can occur after involvement in an accident, assault or natural disasters, with a greater risk of occurrence if the event involved deliberate harm or repeated traumatic experiences. Even witnessing a distressing incident, or being exposed to those who have, can trigger PTSD symptoms in some cases.

People with PTSD may experience ongoing re-occurrence of the same feelings that they experienced during the traumatic event(s) – depressed or negative mood or thoughts, dissociative symptoms or a combination of these symptom patterns. The symptoms may interfere with the person’s ability to carry out their everyday life, work and relationships.

 

Four common issues experienced by people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  1. Repeatedly re-living the event, including the accompanying physical or mental distress, through memories, flashbacks or dreams.
  2. Hyperarousal or hypervigilance – being overly alert, ‘on edge’, wound up or irritable.
  3. Avoiding people, places or anything that may remind them of the trauma.
  4. Feeling emotionally numb or uninterested.

Sometimes PTSD sufferers experience other mental health problems (especially if the PTSD is long-standing), including depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Everyone experiences emotions like trauma differently. Sometimes people will not recognise the traumatic event as an issue but experience mood disorders, relationship problems, poor sleep, sexual dysfunction, or physical health complaints such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems and skin disorders.

 

How can family and friends help?

Support networks play a vital role in recovery from any emotional issue. It can be helpful to read up about common responses to trauma so you know what to expect, but the simple act of providing emotional and practical support helps enormously. Working to remove other potential stressors in the person’s life is one of the most supportive things you can do, because it allows the person to focus more on his/her recovery.

It’s also really helpful to allow for and encourage people to continue with a routine, ensuring they get up each day, do something they enjoy and look after their physical health.

It is very important to provide a helpful ear but avoid spending too much time going over the event in detail. Detailed exploration needs to be handled carefully by a professional, and you should encourage the person who is experiencing these feelings to seek professional help to unpack these feelings safely.

 

How is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treated?

It is important to seek out help whenever its needed. Most treatments involve psychotherapy, but in some cases medication can also help. Exercise, mindfulness and self-help strategies have also been shown to be of benefit, both to the symptoms of PTSD but also for associated conditions like depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

The very nature of PTSD symptoms means that they can be re-triggered by particular places, people or other reminders, so it’s important to make a recovery plan with help from a professional.

 

It’s important to ask for help. Most of us will feel symptoms of trauma in the days and weeks immediately after a traumatic event but if things are not getting better over time, you should reach out.

 

Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online social and mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.

 

[1] Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), accessed 01 May, 208, https://www.dva.gov.au/health-and-wellbeing/mental-health/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd