Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - what you need to know

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can not only leave sufferers feeling anxious and emotional but can cause serious problems within their day-to-day lives.

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If you are worried that either you, a close friend or family member might be suffering with PTSD, here's what you need to know about the signs and symptoms, and importantly, where and how to get help.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The term refers to a range of symptoms that can develop as a response to a traumatic event. Witnesses to events that cause extreme distress, or those that suffer physical or emotional injury, can find themselves experiencing intense fear that in turn can result in serious psychological symptoms.

What are the causes?
Though it is most commonly associated with those involved in the trauma of war, there are many reasons why someone might develop the disorder.

Those that have experienced the stress and horror of combat are perhaps most susceptible to developing PTSD, but those who are involved in or witness violent crime, road traffic accidents, terrorist attacks may also experience the disorder.

Even those who have undergone a traumatic birth or personal trauma such as sudden bereavement can show symptoms.

What are the symptoms?
The wide range of symptoms means PTSD can manifest in different ways for different people. And since it is often a delayed reaction to a traumatic event, sometimes emerging months or even years after the event, the early signs can be missed.

According to the NHS, the most common symptom of PTSD is 're-experience', where the patient endures vivid flashbacks, nightmares or serious distress triggered by a symbolic reminder.

Avoiding and repressing the memory of the event, though it may seem a way of coping, is often a symptom. Avoiding those situations that might trigger a memory of the trauma, repressing memories of the event itself, becoming emotionally detached or withdrawn and unable to express affection may all lead to more serious psychological problems.

Changes in behaviour are also common - irritability, unusually aggressive outburst and an inability to concentrate are also signs of PTSD, while a constant feeling of anxiety and alertness (known as hyperarousal) and insomnia may also point to a problem coping with the trauma.

Some sufferers may also experience depression, thoughts of suicide and feelings of guilt, which are particular common in those who have survived a traumatic event such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

All of the above are common in anyone who has experienced trauma, but if they last longer than a month or are very severe, it is likely that PTSD is the reason.

Getting help
In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, many people feel emotionally numb or dazed by the experience. And often they crave simple, practical advice and support to begin with, as it can be hard to talk about straight away.

In fact, according to mental health charity Mind, those who have to describe the event or attack immediately afterwards may be more likely to develop PTSD. The charity advises that research has shown many people endure a period of denial, similar to that of a bereavement, that allows them time away from the trauma.

However, bottling up the emotional response to the trauma for too long can cause serious psychological problems to emerge over the course of some months or even years. For this reason, talking about your feelings and experiences can help to put sufferers on the road to recovery.

In some cases that may mean seeing a counsellor trained in treating the disorder, or sharing your experiences with others who have gone through similar traumatic events.

Cognitive behavioural therapy, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) (which aims to help you process the event and recover more quickly) and the rewind technique (in which the patient is able to watch the event from a distance whilst in a state of deep relaxation) have all been used to treat PTSD.

Medication is, of course, available for those suffering depression but it may provide only short-term relief without getting to the root of the problem.

If you are concerned about your mental wellbeing following a traumatic experience, your GP should be able to refer you to therapist or counsellor. But if you are not ready to discuss your symptoms with a doctor, charities such a Anxiety UK, ASSIST (Assistance Support and Self Help in Surviving Trauma) and Combat Stress (Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society) offer advice and support for sufferers of PTSD and their families.

Have you suffered with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? How did you cope? Leave your comments below...