Facts About PTSD

Reviewed Sep 20, 2017

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Summary

  • PTSD occurs when the mind is overwhelmed by a stressful event and cannot "get past" it.
  • Anyone can get it if the trauma is severe.
  • It is caused by a change in the brain’s processing of memories.

Life is not always kind, but the human brain and body can usually get back to normal after bad things happen. Though you may never forget a painful event, usually you know that it’s over and no longer a threat to you. You experience it as a memory—painful but no longer to be feared.

In post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—this healing process breaks down. An event such as combat, a terrorist attack, sexual assault or childhood abuse can be so stressful that you can’t “get past” it. It keeps coming back as if it’s still in the present. You live in fear of re-experiencing it. You try to avoid “triggers” that cause flashbacks. You may hide your emotions to keep painful feelings at bay. You may turn to booze or drugs. But you can’t get away from the trauma. PTSD can make you feel like prisoner of the past.

Here are some basic facts—what happens when someone is having symptoms of PTSD, what causes it, who gets it and how it can be treated.

PTSD is a reaction to a real event. It can cause changes to the way we go through and interpret the events of daily life, but it does not start that way. It always starts with something that actually happened. It can be a trauma you experienced directly, or something you saw (or heard about) that happened to someone else. The main point is that such traumas are real, not imagined.

Symptoms of stress should fade away after trauma. In PTSD, they last. It’s common to have extreme states of emotion after the trauma, at least for a time. If symptoms last more than a month, you may have PTSD. It can show up in many ways, such as nightmares, unwanted and troubling thoughts, and dissociation. The latter is a state of feeling cut off from the here and now. It can be a normal part of life and benign, as in daydreaming. But in PTSD, it’s harmful. Dissociation is the state in which one relives the trauma, or feels the strong emotions tied to it, as if it were happening all over again.

PTSD is a breakdown of normal memory. Most of the time the brain processes your experience like a highly skilled file clerk. It takes your memories and places them in context. When you retrieve them, you can find them at a proper point in the past. You can think about them logically and talk about them. Under traumatic stress, the brain changes the way it does this task. Memories are “dissociated,” out of context and out of control.

As therapist and author Glenn Schiraldi, PhD, explains, “If you think of normal memories as files in a file cabinet, a dissociated memory stays on the desktop.” It is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t hold together and don’t integrate with others.”

Memory of this kind can be set off by a “trigger,” plunging a person with PTSD into the same stressful state he had in the original trauma. A car backfires and a veteran with PTSD thinks he is under fire. A child who was sexually abused cannot go to his own bed because that’s where the abuse occurred. PTSD therapy aims to bring the painful memories under control of the rational mind—that is, filed in the right place.
 
Trauma comes in many forms; intentional harm is the trauma most likely to lead to PTSD. Most people who go through trauma do not get symptoms that would lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. So what would make trauma so bad that the brain cannot do its normal work? Certain kinds of trauma do seem more destructive than others. Being harmed on purpose by another human being is worse than being hurt accidentally. Harm from natural disasters is less likely to lead to PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, you are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD if you:

  • Were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or a witness
  • Were badly hurt during the event
  • Went through a trauma that was long-lasting or very harsh
  • Believed that you or a family member was in danger
  • Had a severe reaction during the event, such as crying, shaking, throwing up or feeling apart from your surroundings
  • Felt helpless during the event

PTSD is not just a veterans’ problem. Based on data from health surveys, 7 percent to 8 percent of adult Americans can expect to have PTSD at some time in their lives. Rates are higher among veterans; some 31 percent of male Vietnam vets are believed to have been diagnosed with PTSD. But PTSD affects civilians too. Women are about twice as likely as men to get the diagnosis. Some people may be more prone to PTSD if they have been through life-threatening trauma early in life or have little support from family or friends. Younger people are more susceptible, as are the less educated.

PTSD is treatable. Drugs can ease some PTSD symptoms as well as the commonly associated low mood and anxiety. But more is needed to get at the underlying cause of PTSD. Forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy are often used. One of these, prolonged exposure, aims to end fears about entering safe situations that are linked to trauma. Another is cognitive-processing therapy, which helps the mind make healthier thought patterns. “There is a tool kit of treatments,” says Schiraldi. It is important to seek help from a PTSD specialist who knows the full range of methods.

Resources

On the web

National Center for PTSD
www.ptsd.va.gov

National Institute of Mental Health
http://infocenter.nimh.nih.gov/pubstatic/OM%2009-4299/OM%2009-4299.pdf

Books

The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, 2nd ed., by Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD. McGraw Hill, 2011.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Viking, 2014.

By Tom Gray
Source: National Center for PTSD; National Institute of Mental Health; Glenn Schiraldi, PhD
Reviewed by Cynthia Scott, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • PTSD occurs when the mind is overwhelmed by a stressful event and cannot "get past" it.
  • Anyone can get it if the trauma is severe.
  • It is caused by a change in the brain’s processing of memories.

Life is not always kind, but the human brain and body can usually get back to normal after bad things happen. Though you may never forget a painful event, usually you know that it’s over and no longer a threat to you. You experience it as a memory—painful but no longer to be feared.

In post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—this healing process breaks down. An event such as combat, a terrorist attack, sexual assault or childhood abuse can be so stressful that you can’t “get past” it. It keeps coming back as if it’s still in the present. You live in fear of re-experiencing it. You try to avoid “triggers” that cause flashbacks. You may hide your emotions to keep painful feelings at bay. You may turn to booze or drugs. But you can’t get away from the trauma. PTSD can make you feel like prisoner of the past.

Here are some basic facts—what happens when someone is having symptoms of PTSD, what causes it, who gets it and how it can be treated.

PTSD is a reaction to a real event. It can cause changes to the way we go through and interpret the events of daily life, but it does not start that way. It always starts with something that actually happened. It can be a trauma you experienced directly, or something you saw (or heard about) that happened to someone else. The main point is that such traumas are real, not imagined.

Symptoms of stress should fade away after trauma. In PTSD, they last. It’s common to have extreme states of emotion after the trauma, at least for a time. If symptoms last more than a month, you may have PTSD. It can show up in many ways, such as nightmares, unwanted and troubling thoughts, and dissociation. The latter is a state of feeling cut off from the here and now. It can be a normal part of life and benign, as in daydreaming. But in PTSD, it’s harmful. Dissociation is the state in which one relives the trauma, or feels the strong emotions tied to it, as if it were happening all over again.

PTSD is a breakdown of normal memory. Most of the time the brain processes your experience like a highly skilled file clerk. It takes your memories and places them in context. When you retrieve them, you can find them at a proper point in the past. You can think about them logically and talk about them. Under traumatic stress, the brain changes the way it does this task. Memories are “dissociated,” out of context and out of control.

As therapist and author Glenn Schiraldi, PhD, explains, “If you think of normal memories as files in a file cabinet, a dissociated memory stays on the desktop.” It is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t hold together and don’t integrate with others.”

Memory of this kind can be set off by a “trigger,” plunging a person with PTSD into the same stressful state he had in the original trauma. A car backfires and a veteran with PTSD thinks he is under fire. A child who was sexually abused cannot go to his own bed because that’s where the abuse occurred. PTSD therapy aims to bring the painful memories under control of the rational mind—that is, filed in the right place.
 
Trauma comes in many forms; intentional harm is the trauma most likely to lead to PTSD. Most people who go through trauma do not get symptoms that would lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. So what would make trauma so bad that the brain cannot do its normal work? Certain kinds of trauma do seem more destructive than others. Being harmed on purpose by another human being is worse than being hurt accidentally. Harm from natural disasters is less likely to lead to PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, you are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD if you:

  • Were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or a witness
  • Were badly hurt during the event
  • Went through a trauma that was long-lasting or very harsh
  • Believed that you or a family member was in danger
  • Had a severe reaction during the event, such as crying, shaking, throwing up or feeling apart from your surroundings
  • Felt helpless during the event

PTSD is not just a veterans’ problem. Based on data from health surveys, 7 percent to 8 percent of adult Americans can expect to have PTSD at some time in their lives. Rates are higher among veterans; some 31 percent of male Vietnam vets are believed to have been diagnosed with PTSD. But PTSD affects civilians too. Women are about twice as likely as men to get the diagnosis. Some people may be more prone to PTSD if they have been through life-threatening trauma early in life or have little support from family or friends. Younger people are more susceptible, as are the less educated.

PTSD is treatable. Drugs can ease some PTSD symptoms as well as the commonly associated low mood and anxiety. But more is needed to get at the underlying cause of PTSD. Forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy are often used. One of these, prolonged exposure, aims to end fears about entering safe situations that are linked to trauma. Another is cognitive-processing therapy, which helps the mind make healthier thought patterns. “There is a tool kit of treatments,” says Schiraldi. It is important to seek help from a PTSD specialist who knows the full range of methods.

Resources

On the web

National Center for PTSD
www.ptsd.va.gov

National Institute of Mental Health
http://infocenter.nimh.nih.gov/pubstatic/OM%2009-4299/OM%2009-4299.pdf

Books

The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, 2nd ed., by Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD. McGraw Hill, 2011.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Viking, 2014.

By Tom Gray
Source: National Center for PTSD; National Institute of Mental Health; Glenn Schiraldi, PhD
Reviewed by Cynthia Scott, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

Summary

  • PTSD occurs when the mind is overwhelmed by a stressful event and cannot "get past" it.
  • Anyone can get it if the trauma is severe.
  • It is caused by a change in the brain’s processing of memories.

Life is not always kind, but the human brain and body can usually get back to normal after bad things happen. Though you may never forget a painful event, usually you know that it’s over and no longer a threat to you. You experience it as a memory—painful but no longer to be feared.

In post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSD—this healing process breaks down. An event such as combat, a terrorist attack, sexual assault or childhood abuse can be so stressful that you can’t “get past” it. It keeps coming back as if it’s still in the present. You live in fear of re-experiencing it. You try to avoid “triggers” that cause flashbacks. You may hide your emotions to keep painful feelings at bay. You may turn to booze or drugs. But you can’t get away from the trauma. PTSD can make you feel like prisoner of the past.

Here are some basic facts—what happens when someone is having symptoms of PTSD, what causes it, who gets it and how it can be treated.

PTSD is a reaction to a real event. It can cause changes to the way we go through and interpret the events of daily life, but it does not start that way. It always starts with something that actually happened. It can be a trauma you experienced directly, or something you saw (or heard about) that happened to someone else. The main point is that such traumas are real, not imagined.

Symptoms of stress should fade away after trauma. In PTSD, they last. It’s common to have extreme states of emotion after the trauma, at least for a time. If symptoms last more than a month, you may have PTSD. It can show up in many ways, such as nightmares, unwanted and troubling thoughts, and dissociation. The latter is a state of feeling cut off from the here and now. It can be a normal part of life and benign, as in daydreaming. But in PTSD, it’s harmful. Dissociation is the state in which one relives the trauma, or feels the strong emotions tied to it, as if it were happening all over again.

PTSD is a breakdown of normal memory. Most of the time the brain processes your experience like a highly skilled file clerk. It takes your memories and places them in context. When you retrieve them, you can find them at a proper point in the past. You can think about them logically and talk about them. Under traumatic stress, the brain changes the way it does this task. Memories are “dissociated,” out of context and out of control.

As therapist and author Glenn Schiraldi, PhD, explains, “If you think of normal memories as files in a file cabinet, a dissociated memory stays on the desktop.” It is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t hold together and don’t integrate with others.”

Memory of this kind can be set off by a “trigger,” plunging a person with PTSD into the same stressful state he had in the original trauma. A car backfires and a veteran with PTSD thinks he is under fire. A child who was sexually abused cannot go to his own bed because that’s where the abuse occurred. PTSD therapy aims to bring the painful memories under control of the rational mind—that is, filed in the right place.
 
Trauma comes in many forms; intentional harm is the trauma most likely to lead to PTSD. Most people who go through trauma do not get symptoms that would lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. So what would make trauma so bad that the brain cannot do its normal work? Certain kinds of trauma do seem more destructive than others. Being harmed on purpose by another human being is worse than being hurt accidentally. Harm from natural disasters is less likely to lead to PTSD. According to the National Center for PTSD, you are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD if you:

  • Were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or a witness
  • Were badly hurt during the event
  • Went through a trauma that was long-lasting or very harsh
  • Believed that you or a family member was in danger
  • Had a severe reaction during the event, such as crying, shaking, throwing up or feeling apart from your surroundings
  • Felt helpless during the event

PTSD is not just a veterans’ problem. Based on data from health surveys, 7 percent to 8 percent of adult Americans can expect to have PTSD at some time in their lives. Rates are higher among veterans; some 31 percent of male Vietnam vets are believed to have been diagnosed with PTSD. But PTSD affects civilians too. Women are about twice as likely as men to get the diagnosis. Some people may be more prone to PTSD if they have been through life-threatening trauma early in life or have little support from family or friends. Younger people are more susceptible, as are the less educated.

PTSD is treatable. Drugs can ease some PTSD symptoms as well as the commonly associated low mood and anxiety. But more is needed to get at the underlying cause of PTSD. Forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy are often used. One of these, prolonged exposure, aims to end fears about entering safe situations that are linked to trauma. Another is cognitive-processing therapy, which helps the mind make healthier thought patterns. “There is a tool kit of treatments,” says Schiraldi. It is important to seek help from a PTSD specialist who knows the full range of methods.

Resources

On the web

National Center for PTSD
www.ptsd.va.gov

National Institute of Mental Health
http://infocenter.nimh.nih.gov/pubstatic/OM%2009-4299/OM%2009-4299.pdf

Books

The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook, 2nd ed., by Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD. McGraw Hill, 2011.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk. Viking, 2014.

By Tom Gray
Source: National Center for PTSD; National Institute of Mental Health; Glenn Schiraldi, PhD
Reviewed by Cynthia Scott, MD, Physician Advisor, Beacon Health Options

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