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Help With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Curated and updated for the community by APA

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat or rape or who have been threatened with deaath, sexual violence or serious injury.

PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II, but PTSD does not just happen to combat veterans. PTSD can occur in all people of any ethnicity, nationality or culture, and at any age. PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults every year, and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. Women are twice as likely as men to have PTSD. Three ethnic minorities--U.S. Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians--are disproportunately affected and have higher rates of PTSD than non-Latino whites. 

See more on symptoms, & treatment

  • Mar 24, 2021
Exploring the Complexities of Resilience

Many children experience adversity and traumatic events. Researchers continue to try to understand resilience, or the trait that makes some children, and adults, better able than others to cope and adapt to adversity.

  • Mar 18, 2021
Honoring Women’s Contributions to Psychiatry Research

All across the field of psychiatry, women make an impact every day in furthering our understanding of the brain and how to treat mental health and substance use disorders. In recognition of Women’s History Month, APA is highlighting six women whose research contributions have meant better outcomes for people with mental illness.

  • Dec 29, 2020
Women, Disasters and Resilience

Do women experience disasters, including planning, preparedness, response and recovery, differently than men? That is the question examined in a new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The report looks at the long-held notion in disaster behavioral health research that “women are more vulnerable to adverse mental health consequences of disaster than are men.”  

Are there physical problems that are commonly associated with PTSD?

In addition to the thoughts and feelings identified in the What is PTSD? section, people with PTSD may also experience physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, fatigue, muscle tension, nausea, joint pain, headaches, back pain or other types of pain. The person in pain may not realize the connection between their pain and a traumatic event. For people with chronic pain, the pain may actually serve as a reminder of the traumatic event, which in turn may intensify PTSD symptoms. Some people who develop PTSD and chronic pain also experience depression and alcohol and prescription medication misuse. Chronic PTSD has been shown to increase the risk of having a variety of health issues and decreased life expectancy. During the COVID-19 pandemic the perception of the lethal threat of the virus has been associated with stress and trauma-related somatic symptoms.

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My spouse has just been diagnosed with PTSD, how can I best help?

A person contending with exposure to a traumatic event may feel helpless, prompting a concerned spouse to want to take action to help. Perhaps the most powerful approach is to just be there for the person, show acceptance and concern, and listen without being judgmental or giving advice. Allow your spouse to talk about the trauma only if he or she would like to and encourage additional support from family, friends and faith and community resources. Encouraging healthy living, such as attention to diet, exercise and refraining from smoking and excessive use of alcohol, is important. It would also be a good time to plan relaxing enjoyable leisure time activities.

Take some time to educate yourself about trauma, PTSD and recovery and healing. Learning about what your spouse may be going through will help you and your family to understand better and be more supportive. Remember to take care of your own physical and mental health as well. More

Why do some people get PTSD after a traumatic event and others don't?

Studies have found that in fact most people recover and do not develop PTSD after exposure to a major traumatic event. However some people find themselves feeling worse as time passes and experience the symptoms of PTSD. Several factors before and after a traumatic event seem to increase the likelihood of PTSD. For example, the risk is greater when the traumatic event is more severe, violent, occurs over a longer period of time or involves harm to oneself or loss of a loved one. Being around reminders of the traumatic event can also increase the risk. In general women are more likely than men and younger people more likely than older to develop PTSD. People who had adverse childhood experiences, especially exposure to traumatic events, are more susceptible, as are people with chronic medical or psychiatric illness. More

What's the difference between a normal reaction to a traumatic event and PTSD?

People react to experience of trauma in a variety of ways, such as sadness, irritability and confusion. In the immediate aftermath of a major traumatic event most people complain of stress, difficulty concentrating, sleeping or getting along with others. With PTSD, the troubling symptoms worsen, affect social and work functioning, and persist longer than a month. If you or a loved one are struggling to cope with the effects of a trauma it may be useful to seek professional help. More

How can I find out more about different types of therapies and treatments for PTSD?

Several effective treatment options are available including psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), prolonged exposure therapy (PE), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR); and medications, such as the antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Often the combination of medication and psychotherapy is more effective than either form of treatment alone.

A good overview of effective treatment options for PTSD is available from the National Center for PTSD in the publication “Understanding PTSD Treatment.” Specific treatment guidelines are available from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Information on treatment for children is available from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Self-help tools, including PTSD Coach Online and PTSD Coach app, are available from the National Center for PTSD. These offer support for coping with sadness, anxiety and other symptoms that people who have been through trauma can develop. They can help you relax when you feel stressed, improve your mood, learn how to tackle difficult problems and help change thinking patterns. More

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About the Expert:

Spencer Eth, M.D.
Professor of Psychiatry, University Miami School of Medicine
Chief of Mentqal Health Service Miami VA Healthcare System

Editor's Choice

JAN 18, 2021

The case for funding psychedelics to treat mental health
Journal of Trauma and Dissociation

Given the diversity of military veterans and growing evidence of ethnoracial disparities in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within this population, elucidating the role of discrimination-related stress in contributing to these disparities is crucial. The findings suggest that discriminatory stress impacts PTSD severity differentially for various ethnoracial/gender groups and highlight the value of applying an intersectional framework that accounts for the synergistic connections among multiple identities to future screening, intervention, and research efforts.

 JAN 18, 2021

Interpersonal Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder among Black Women: Does Racial Discrimination Matter?

DocWire

There is evidence that the more frequent, severe, and chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptomatology experienced by Black compared to White individuals cannot be explained by disparities in socioeconomic status or trauma exposure. One factor that may be important to consider is racial discrimination, which is associated with numerous negative mental health outcomes yet has not been studied in the context of interpersonal traumas for Black women.

DEC 29, 2020

Brain imaging predicts PTSD after brain injury
Science Daily

Brain volume measurement may provide early biomarker. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex psychiatric disorder brought on by physical and/or psychological trauma. How its symptoms, including anxiety, depression and cognitive disturbances arise remains incompletely understood and unpredictable. Treatments and outcomes could potentially be improved if doctors could better predict who would develop PTSD. Now, researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have found potential brain biomarkers of PTSD in people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Resources

Additional Resources and Support

National Center for PTSD

Make the Connections (Dept. of Veterans Affairs)

Mental Health American (MHA)

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH)

Wounded Warrior Project

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)

Physician Reviewed

Felix Torres, MD, MBA, DFAPA
August 2020