Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

You are probably familiar with the term “PTSD”, or post-traumatic stress disorder, most often associated with veterans of war. However, PTSD can occur anytime someone has a traumatic experience, particularly when someone has a traumatic death or there are fears that someone will – it could be fears for ourselves, or loved ones, or really anyone.  However, many other kinds of trauma can cause PTSD.

Not everyone develops PTSD after a traumatic event. In fact, 50% of people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives but only a very small number of these go on to develop PTSD, sometimes months or years after the event.

Researchers have identified a few factors that may protect people, making it less likely they will develop PTSD. These include, for example:

  • Having good support after an event from family, friends, professionals, or a support group
  • Finding an effective coping strategy (or strategies) to get through the event
  • Feeling that you could learn something that you value from the event
  • Feeling positively about the way you could respond during the event

There are also factors that make it more likely that someone might develop PTSD. These include things like having little emotional support, dealing with multiple traumatic events or losses, or dealing with mental health problems at the same time as the trauma.  When it occurs, PTSD can have significant effects on quality of life, relationships, and ability to work.

How do you know if you, or a loved one, is experiencing PTSD?

Below are a series of questions to help you evaluate your own or a loved one’s experience in relation to PTSD:

In the past month, have you…[1]

  1. Had nightmares about the event(s) or thought about the event(s) when you did not want to?
  2. Tried hard not to think about the event(s) or went out of your way to avoid situations that reminded you of the event(s)?
  3. Been constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled?
  4. Felt numb or detached from people, activities, or your surroundings?
  5. Felt guilty or unable to stop blaming yourself or others for the event(s) or any problems the event(s) may have caused?

If you answer yes to 3 of the 5 questions above, it is recommended that you speak to your physician or mental health professional about your symptoms. It is possible that you have PTSD. Fortunately, there are good treatments for PTSD that can help!

What are the symptoms of PTSD? There are 3 kinds of symptoms that people with PTSD may experience:

  1. Re-experiencing symptoms: The traumatic event is re-experienced in a persistent way including such things as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks or nightmares. This also includes feeling distressed if you are exposed to reminders (or “triggers”) of the original traumatic event.
  2. Avoidance: Actively avoiding situations which are likely to result in thoughts or feeling about the trauma or that remind them of the trauma.
  3. Negative thoughts and feelings – PTSD can have a big impact on how one feels emotionally and thinks about things. Often, with PTSD, a person may find that they have developed negative thoughts and feeling about themselves or the world and feel isolated or detached, for example.
  4. Arousal symptoms that occur after the trauma or that worsen, such as irritability, aggression, difficulty concentrating or sleeping and risky or destructive behaviours.

Needless to say, these symptoms can cause tremendous distress to the person with PTSD as well as their loved ones.  Work is also often disrupted.

How is PTSD treated?

PTSD is most often treated with a combination of counselling (“talk therapy”) and medication. Medication by itself is often not sufficient to improve symptoms but talk therapy can be, given enough time. In counselling, typically the person learns to manage their symptoms in more productive ways, which, over time can decrease the symptoms. They also learn to shift unhelpful thoughts that may have developed because of the trauma. Common thoughts that someone may are things like:

  • the world is unsafe, everywhere is danger, which leads to experiencing high levels of stress
  • there is no one I can trust, which leads to difficulty in relationships
  • I can’t get close to anyone, even myself, which also causes trouble in relationships as well as contributing to depression.

While all mental health problems can benefit some from self-help activities, including PTSD, if you or a loved one is possibly experiencing PTSD it is best to get some professional help. Mental health professionals often deal with trauma and are in the best position to direct you to good resources as well as to provide you support as you begin to address PTSD. If you are interested in more information, the following websites can be helpful:

Veteran’s Affairs Canada – many government sites in Canada and the US provide information tailored to military veterans. However, while some details may differ, the information generally is applicable to anyone with PTSD

Centre for Addictions and Mental Health – PTSD Information

National Institute of Mental Health (USA)

[1] Prins, A., Bovin, M. J., Kimerling, R., Kaloupek, D. G., Marx, B. P., Pless Kaiser, A., & Schnurr, P. P. (2015). The Primary Care PTSD Screen for DSM-5 (PC-PTSD-5). [Measurement instrument].