When we think about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it’s typically in the context of active duty service members and veterans—for good reason. Dangerous and potentially traumatic situations are common occurrences in the context of military service. However, it’s important to note that PTSD is not exclusive to this type of trauma.
In the U.S., about eight million people experience PTSD. While any traumatic experience can lead to PTSD, there are a few types of trauma that are the most common. Examples include sexual assault/abuse, natural disasters, accidents/injuries to self or other, or being in a life-threatening situation. When you consider these examples, it’s understandable why people would associate PTSD most frequently with military service members. However, this assumption can be problematic.
If people believe that only service members and veterans can develop PTSD, the recognition of symptoms and treatment can be delayed. The fact is: Anyone can develop PTSD when they experience or witness a traumatic event—adult or child, man or woman. Anyone.
How Do You Know If You Have PTSD?
About 50% of all people will go through at least one traumatic experience in their lifetime. But not everyone will develop PTSD. In fact, the majority won’t. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between the typical symptoms that follow a traumatic event and when it has reached the point that a condition like PTSD has developed.
It’s common for people who experience trauma to have nightmares or flashbacks for a few weeks and then gradually improve. It’s when those symptoms don’t improve and begin to interfere with a person’s life that a mental health evaluation should be considered. A person who experiences the following intense symptoms for more than a month may have PTSD:
- At least one “re-experiencing” symptom (flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts)
- At least one avoidance symptom (avoiding thoughts, feeling, places, objects or events related to the traumatic experience)
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms (easily startled, feeling tense, difficulty sleeping, outbursts of anger)
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms (difficulty remembering details of the traumatic experience, negative thoughts, distorted feelings, loss of interest)
It’s important to note that PTSD-related symptoms may not occur immediately after the traumatic event; they may not surface until weeks or months afterwards. Another major, key difference between typical reactions and PTSD is that while most will remember the fear they felt during trauma, PTSD can cause a person to actually feel as if they are reliving that fear.
What Should You Do After Trauma?
If a person feels supported by friends and family after a traumatic event, it can reduce the risk of developing symptoms of PTSD. It can also be helpful for a person to join a support group, so they can share their thoughts, fears and questions with other people who have also experienced trauma. Using healthy, positive coping strategies—such as exercise, mediation or playing an instrument—can also be helpful.
If symptoms persist, it’s essential to seek treatment. Those with PTSD typically respond better to structured therapies such as:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – helps a person replace their negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EDMR) – exposes a person to traumatic memories with varying stimuli, such as eye movements
- Exposure therapy – helps a person safely face their fears so they can learn to cope with them
- Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) – is a new treatment for reducing the intensity and frequency of nightmares
If you or someone you know is having a difficult time coping with trauma, these interventions can make a huge difference. PTSD is treatable. It’s more effective if treated early, but it’s never too late to get treatment no matter how long ago the trauma occurred.
Trauma is a part of life—it affects most people at some point. But that doesn’t mean it’s a mundane experience that can be ignored or brushed off. The key is to check-in on symptoms and seek care from a mental health professional if they persist.
Whether you’re a military service member, veteran, salesperson or elementary school student, PTSD has the potential to develop in any of us. And if it does, please know that help is available. No one should face PTSD alone.
This article was reprinted with permission by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).