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Q. What is posttraumatic stress, what causes it, and what can I do?
Posttraumatic stress or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a reaction that can occur after one has experienced a traumatic event. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, disturbed sleep, hypervigilance, an exaggerated startle response, and flashbacks. Disturbed sleep can involve a problem with falling asleep, or problems with intermittently waking up during the night and not being able to reinitiate sleep. Hypervigilance refers to a heightened awareness of your surroundings to the point of not being able to relax without looking around. An exaggerated startle response refers to an individual becoming startled by things around them very easily, such that the individual might appear "jumpy" or always nervous. Finally, flashbacks occur when the individual feels as if they are re-experiencing the traumatic event to the point that they might become confused about where they are in the present. Additionally, "intrusive thoughts" are common in those who suffer from PTSD, wherein thoughts and images of the traumatic event "pop" into their mind. An individual who suffers from PTSD is also likely to avoid people and places that remind he/she about the traumatic event.
By definition, PTSD is preceded by a traumatic event. Such an event might include a car accident, a physical or sexual assault, a burglary or mugging, a war experience such as combat, or any other event that the person might experience as frightening, threatening, overwhelming, or devastating. The traumatic event usually creates a feeling of powerlessness and fear in the moment of the incident. It is important to realize however, that what one person experiences as "traumatic," another individual might not. As a result, it is important to value every individual's experience, even though their reaction might be different than others or your own. An individual's reaction to an event is also influenced by past traumas that the person might have experienced. For example, if a person was sexually abused as a child, they might have an overwhelming PTSD response after getting into a car accident, even years later. In fact, it is not unusual for a person who has been previously traumatized to be more vulnerable to traumatizing experiences later in life.
PTSD can be a debilitating and paralyzing problem that can interfere with one's daily functioning. It is likely to cause relationship problems, academic problems, as well as depression and/or anxiety if it remains untreated. People who are traumatized might fear sharing their experience with others because it can be so painful to recount the traumatic event. Additionally, the person might not want others to know what happened to them because of fear, shame, or embarrassment. The individual might also fear that they are "going crazy." As a result of the reluctance to share, a person is likely to feel isolated and alienated from others, thus compounding the problem. Psychotherapy is strongly recommended for those who have been traumatized as a non-threatening way to seek support that ensures confidentiality.
Many times people mistakenly believe that the traumatic experience will go away on its own over time. Counseling, although challenging, can aid in the process of recovering from a life-changing event. If symptoms are severe, it is also important to consider a psychiatric evaluation in order to assess if medication might be helpful in order to decrease insomnia, reduce depressive symptoms, etc. Furthermore, seeking peer support can also be an important component of recovery. Regardless of what one chooses to pursue, he/she must seek some form of support in order to process the feelings associated with their traumatic experience. It will not go away on its own!!!