Do you know someone who has experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Have you ever wondered, “Do I have PTSD?” The National Center for PTSD states that about six out of every 100 people in the United States will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD often goes undiagnosed because many people don’t realize that the intense emotional and physical responses that they are experiencing are, in fact, symptoms of the disorder.
“It is a constellation of symptoms,” explained Matthew Widmeyer, PA-C, a physician assistant at Bloom Health Centers. “There will be intrusive symptoms related to the past trauma, such as flashbacks and nightmares that seem to happen in real-time,” said Widmeyer. “A person may avoid physical or situational reminders of the trauma, like the scene of a car accident.”
Another common symptom is hypervigilance, which is the feeling of being constantly on edge or startling easily. Other people may feel anxious about future events, get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, or look at the world as a place that is no longer safe. Some individuals may blame themselves or feel guilt or shame.
PTSD is often mistaken for depression, generalized anxiety, or panic disorders. Frequently, a patient may seek treatment for one of those conditions, never considering that they might have PTSD. It is especially important to have a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable of PTSD and who can help to isolate the cause. They will take a thorough mental health history and look at the timeline of life events and symptoms. If the symptoms are a relatively new development or if there was a recent trauma, then it could in fact be PTSD. A skilled mental health practitioner will also assess physical health to rule out symptoms caused by physical conditions.
Formally Diagnosing PTSD
There are several PTSD indicators that must be present for a healthcare provider to diagnose someone with the disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health has developed a set of specific guidelines that can be found here. A few examples include:
- Symptoms must last more than a month.
- They must be severe enough to interfere with relationships, work, or an individual’s daily routine.
- Symptoms must be affecting cognition and/or mood.
What Can Cause PTSD?
“For men, a very common cause is military combat, especially overseas. For women, domestic abuse and sexual assault are the leading causes,” said Widmeyer. “I also see many patients who have been in a car accident, spent time hospitalized in the intensive care unit, or who were placed on a ventilator.” A traumatic birth experience or loss of a child can also lead to PTSD.
PTSD isn’t limited to those who experience the trauma directly. The definition of PTSD includes those who have witnessed a trauma, such as a murder or physical abuse to someone else.
Can PTSD Be Treated?
“Absolutely,” said Widmeyer. “A majority of people will see a significant reduction or even remission of their symptoms with a care team experienced in PTSD and who can design an individualized treatment plan.”
That plan will likely include psychotherapy, consisting of a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and exposure therapy. A behavioral therapist may introduce day-to-day coping strategies, such as breathing techniques and grounding exercises. Medication management may also be a part of that care plan, including medications also used to treat anxiety and depression.
“Ideally, you will be working with a whole team of providers to create the best outcome,” said Widmeyer. A patient would want a healthcare provider with the ability to prescribe medication, if needed (such as a psychiatrist, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner) and a healthcare provider with behavioral expertise (such as a psychologist or behavioral therapist).
Don’t Wait to Treat PTSD?
Some people may not experience symptoms until weeks or months after an event, and this can depend on the “protective factors” that are present in their lives. Immediately following a traumatic event such as a car collision, for example, someone may take time off work with family and friends checking in frequently to provide support. Yet as life returns to normal, the negative emotional and physical responses may start to resurface.
It is common for someone going through an experience like this to think to themselves, “I should be over this by now,” or, “People will think I’m weak.” They might feel ashamed, guilty, or embarrassed, and all of these thoughts may lead them to ignore the symptoms and avoid treatment.
The risk is that people with PTSD are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, or a substance use disorder. Their relationships can suffer greatly, and employment can be a challenge.
Taking the Next step
“Many people out there have experienced traumatic events and dealt with these same symptoms. Many of them have sought treatment and have done really well and are back to living fully and doing the things they enjoy,” said Widmeyer. “If you feel like this is something that you’re dealing with, know that you’re not alone and there’s hope.”