What Is PTSD?: A Closer Look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

What is PTSD?

We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the news these days. The headlines are often tragic, and the stories can leave us with more questions than answers.

This week, we thought we’d dig a little deeper into what the condition is, what it means and how it’s being dealt with.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event that someone has either witnessed or been a part of. Combat, natural disasters, sexual assault, serious traffic accidents and even life-threatening health issues are just a few examples of the types of events that can lead to episodes of PTSD.

It’s estimated that about 3.5% of Americans are currently dealing with PTSD in their own lives. Symptoms can appear a few weeks after the event. Or they can take months or even years to manifest.

What Are The Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms, which can cause problems at work and in relationships, vary by individual. A person dealing with PTSD may experience more than one symptom at a time. And the intensity of episodes may fluctuate over time or due to the nature of the event that triggered the episode. Here are some of the more common signs that point to PTSD:

  • Emotional and physical changes in reaction: This group of symptoms includes being easily frightened or startled, hypervigilance (always on guard), inability to sleep or concentrate, outbursts of aggression, strong feelings of guilt and shame and self-destructive behavior, such as drug use or excessive drinking.
  • Negative thoughts and moods: This category includes feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts about others, feeling emotionally numb and detached, disinterest in activities once enjoyed, difficulty in maintaining relationships and memory issues.
  • Disturbing memories: Those coping with PTSD may sometimes experience unwanted memories of the traumatic event, flashbacks, unsettling dreams or nightmares and distress over something that reminds them of the event.
  • Avoidance: PTSD experiencers may sometimes try to avoid family and friends. Or they may avoid talking about the traumatic event or going to places that remind them of what happened.

A Few Myths About PTSD

Like any issue that society is still trying to get a grip on, there are lots of misconceptions when it comes to PTSD. And there are still as many unknowns as there are misconceptions, but there are some common myths we can put to rest.

For one, some people believe only veterans experience PTSD, which isn’t the case. There are millions of Americans who’ve never been in the military—or even worked as a first-responder—who experience the condition. But it’s true that, as a group, veterans with PTSD make up a larger percentage, compared to the general U.S. population.

Between 11% and 20% of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom experience the condition in any given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Twelve percent of veterans of the Gulf War experience PTSD every year. And 30% of Vietnam War veterans cope with the condition at some point in life.

PTSD is without a doubt largely responsible for the tragic number of U.S. veterans who take their own lives each day—an average of 20.

Another misconception is that PTSD is “all in the heads” of those dealing with it or that it’s a sign of weak character. This, too, isn’t an idea the facts support. It’s an outdated view, according to today’s mental health professionals. But, sadly, the stigma of being labeled as weak still keeps many from seeking treatment.

The most-decorated and distinguished war hero of WWII, Texas-born Audie Murphy, frequently spoke publicly of his own fight with PTSD—often dismissed by many as “combat fatigue.” Murphy, who later became a star of the silver screen, spent his life after the war dealing with insomnia, depression and nightmares related to the battles he was in. He slept with a gun under his pillow, and he struggled with a pill addiction.

But it would be hard to argue that a hero like Murphy was weak in character—or that his condition was something he should have just “snapped out” of.

Today, science tells us that traumatic events such as those Murphy went through have a tendency to rewire the brain. Triggers, which can come in a variety of forms, induce a chemical stress response that shuts off select parts of the brain, while at the same time giving a little extra “juice” to areas associated with survival instincts. It’s an automatic coping mechanism put in place by the body.

But it is treatable, despite another misconception that PTSD “is forever.” Mental health practitioners have developed a number of successful methods to help PTSD experiencers manage their conditions.

Treatment for PTSD

Mental health professionals treat PTSD three ways: through medication, psychotherapy or through a combination of both. Within these categories, there are many approaches and techniques. Experts say specific treatments tend to vary based on the individual needs of a patient—there’s no one-size-fits-all method. So, PTSD experiencers may have to try several methods before something starts to click. Here are some of the approaches to treatment:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy: In short, CBT, is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on changing stress-induced patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. CBT encompasses several approaches to treatment. Some help patients learn how to confront fears. Others give patients tools to deal with anxiety or better understand the nature of their traumatic event.

Experts have even found that the presence of animals can have a positive effect in treating PTSD—another approach that falls under the umbrella of CBT treatment. Dogs and cats, in particular, can help lower stress and ease feelings of isolation and loneliness. They can help foster a sense of being needed, as well, and often serve as a great excuse for their owners to get out and about. Click here to see more on CBT from the American Psychiatric Association.

Medications: While there’s no cure-all drug for PTSD, several have proven effective in helping manage and lessen the symptoms. Health practitioners frequently prescribe medications that help PTSD patients sleep better or cope with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or drug addiction. Click here to read a detailed description of common medications used to treat PTSD.

A Brief History of PTSD

From misfortunes with woolly mammoths on ancient hunting grounds, to the battlefields of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century, its likely humans have been dealing with PTSD for a long time. There are, in fact, several well-known written accounts of Roman soldiers who showed the classic signs of PTSD, though we don’t know what they would have called it, if anything.

During the U.S. Civil War, we knew the condition as soldier’s heart. In WWI, we called it shell shock. And when our heroes fought the likes of Nazi Germany and others later, we said our soldiers had battle fatigue and combat neurosis.

The term PTSD came onto the scene in the 1970s during the Vietnam War as mental health professionals began to search harder for ways to describe what they were seeing. The American Psychiatric Association officially recognized and described the condition in 1980, five years after the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

With more and more research since that time, the descriptions of PTSD symptoms and methods of treatment have evolved, and they continue to do so. Public awareness of the condition continues to grow, as well.

In 2010, the U.S. Senate declared June 27 National PTSD Awareness Day. Spearheaded by then-North Dakota Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, the day honors the birthday of North Dakota National Guard Staff Sgt. Joe Biel. The soldier, a friend to Conrad, suffered with PTSD after two tours in Iraq and took his own life. In 2014, the entire month of June was declared National PTSD Awareness Month.

Veteran Energy Affinity Partners Helping Veterans and Military Members

As a company based in the state with one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the U.S.—Texas—Veteran Energy is proud to help support several groups here that focus on treating PTSD in veterans and military members. These groups have proven to be valuable resources. Below, you’ll find links to their sites.

Paws for Heroes seeks to heal PTSD by pairing veterans with shelter animals matched by personality. Professional animal handlers train the animals and teach them good manners that fit the veteran’s lifestyle, all at no cost to the veteran.

Lone Survivor Foundation offers a support system to restore veterans’ health and wellness. The program is designed to go beyond standard government programs and help veterans reconnect with their families and community.

Combined Arms was created as a one-stop shop as a more efficient way to connect members of the veteran and military community with the services they need. Veterans can access services from around 60 different organizations through Combined Arms, making it a smoother and easier process than trying to reach these services themselves.

Texas VFW Foundation helps support veterans, military personnel and their families with immediate concerns such as housing, counseling and health care, as well as with veteran policy issues that can have an effect now and in the future.

Fisher House Foundation helps veteran and military patients rehabilitate from injury and sickness in reassuring, pleasant surroundings in the company of loved ones who pay no lodging fees. The organization also helps to cover airfare and hotel expenses.