About half of American adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. Thankfully, most won’t develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who develop this condition can experience significant impact in their ability to function at work, home and socially.
PTSD is triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing or witnessing it. That event could be living through a natural disaster, serving in combat, surviving a serious accident or losing a loved one. Symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Most people who go through traumatic events may temporarily have difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time.
Symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but may not appear until years later. These symptoms can include “flashbacks” of the event, avoidance of dealing with feelings related to the trauma, negative thoughts and mood, and changes in physical or emotional reactions when you think about the event.
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you’re stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of your experience.
Taking the first steps to treatment
Treatment for PTSD begins with identifying the problem and talking openly with your doctor. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from worsening.
Everyone is different, and PTSD affects people differently, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. It is important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental health provider who is experienced with the condition. Some people with PTSD may need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms. If someone with PTSD is going through an ongoing trauma, such as being in an abusive relationship, both problems need to be addressed. Other ongoing problems can include panic disorder, depression, substance abuse and feeling suicidal.
The most studied type of medication for treating PTSD is antidepressants, which may help control symptoms such as sadness, worry, anger and feeling numb inside. Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication or medication combination, as well as the right dose.
Talk therapies teach people helpful ways to react to frightening events that trigger their PTSD symptoms. One helpful form of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which can include:
Exposure therapy – This helps people face and control their fear by gradually and safely exposing them to the trauma they experienced.
Cognitive restructuring – This helps people make sense of the bad memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than it actually happened. They may feel guilt or shame about something that is not their fault.
Recovery from PTSD is a gradual, ongoing process. Healing doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many steps you can take to cope with the residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.
Overcoming your sense of helplessness is key to overcoming PTSD. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times.
One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need or donate to your favorite charity. Taking positive action directly challenges the sense of helplessness that is a common symptom of PTSD.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a services locator to help those in need find support in their communities. The National Helpline provides 24-hour free and confidential help for substance use and mental health disorders, including PTSD.
If you or your loved one aren’t quite ready to seek in-person help, there are national helplines that can ease you into your path of recovery.
Here are a few helplines available for 24-hour, confidential support:
National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Support for all mental and substance use disorders, as well as prevention and treatment advice
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-237-TALK (8255)
Prevention hotline available for anyone contemplating suicide or undergoing extreme emotional distress
Our Health Tips on recovery topics this September are in support of National Recovery Month. Learn more about UCF health and wellness services, including recovery support.