Post-traumatic Stress (PTSD)

Source: NAMI

Traumatic events—such as an accident, assault, military combat or natural disaster—can have lasting effects on a person’s mental health. While many people will have short term responses to life-threatening events, some will develop longer term symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms often co-exist with other conditions such as substance use disorders, depression and anxiety. A comprehensive medical evaluation resulting in an individualized treatment plan is optimal.

PTSD affects 3.5% of the U.S. adult population—about 8 million Americans. About 37% of those diagnosed with PTSD are classified as having severe symptoms. And women have higher rates than men.

Symptoms

A diagnosis of PTSD requires a discussion with a trained professional. Symptoms of PTSD generally fall into these broad categories:

  • Re-experiencing type symptoms, such as recurring, involuntary and intrusive distressing memories, which can include flashbacks of the trauma, bad dreams and intrusive thoughts.
  • Avoidance, which can include staying away from certain places or objects that are reminders of the traumatic event. A person might actively avoid a place or person that might activate overwhelming symptoms.
  • Cognitive and mood symptoms, which can include trouble recalling the event, negative thoughts about one’s self. A person may also feel numb, guilty, worried or depressed and have difficulty remembering the traumatic event. Cognitive symptoms can in some instances extend to include out-of-body experiences or feeling that the world is “not real” (derealization).
  • Arousal symptoms, such as hypervigilance. Examples might include being intensely startled by stimuli that resembles the trauma, trouble sleeping or outbursts of anger.
  • Difficulty processing information quickly.
  • Struggling to follow directions.

Young children can also develop PTSD, and the symptoms are different from those of adults. (This recent recognition by the field is a major step forward and research is ongoing.) Young children lack the ability to convey some aspects of their experience. Behavior (e.g. clinging to parents) is often a better clue than words, and developmental achievements in an impacted child might slip back (e.g. reversion to not being toilet trained in a 4-year-old).

It is essential that a child be assessed by a professional who is skilled in the developmental responses to stressful events. A pediatrician or child mental health clinician can be a good start.

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