Posted by: jedwardswright | April 25, 2011

When the Past Hurts: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Part 1

Many people suffer because of past trauma.

Carmen woke up one night when she was seven to find that her stepfather was touching her “down there.” Over the next three years, this scene was repeated several times a month, until Carmen found the courage to tell her fifth-grade teacher. Now as an adult Carmen struggles to maintain a romantic relationship, frequently wakes up in a cold sweat screaming, and often suffers from insomnia.

Bill served his country in Vietnam for almost two years.  Five months of that time were spent as a prisoner of war in a Vietcong camp, where he experienced severe privation and torture. Worse, he heard and saw his comrades being beaten and subjected to agonizing interrogation. Once Bill was rescued and arrived stateside, his wife was troubled by the detached and uncommunicative man she welcomed home. Bill now drank heavily, had terrible mood swings, and was quick to lose his temper. She wondered what had happened to the gentle, caring man she had sent overseas.

Courtney was driving her best friend home after a school dance. The two girls were laughing and comparing notes when the car slid at a curve on a patch of black ice, crashing down an embankment. When Courtney woke up in the hospital she had three cracked ribs, a broken pelvis, and a face that looked like she had lost a boxing match. Her friend died in the ambulance within a minute of being pulled from the wreckage. Courtney blamed herself: she wasn’t paying enough attention or she wasn’t a good enough driver. She can’t face her friend’s family, so she avoids going out in public in case she meets them somewhere. Courtney makes her mother or brother drive her around since she refuses to get behind the wheel again. Her grades have dropped, she quit the basketball team and spends a lot of time alone in her room.

These three examples are fictional representations of real situations. All three people experienced severe trauma that caused serious emotional and psychological damage.  In every case, the impact of a devastating situation created lasting symptoms of distress.

When our bodies are badly battered, the result may be scars, chronic pain or handicaps. Traumatic events leave evidence of harm on both our brains and physical bodies.

The injury may have been a single violent incident or a series of violations over a long period. The effects may last for over a month or over all of a person’s remaining years.  While PTSD usually begins within three months of the event, it may show up years later, particularly if prompted by a memory trigger.

When a harrowing experience causes life-altering impairment lasting longer than four weeks, the diagnosis is usually posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although technically PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, depression is a common symptom of that condition.

Examples of inciting “stressors” which might cause PTSD include:

  • Physical, verbal, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Natural disaster
  • War
  • Serious accident
  • Being a victim of crime e.g. mugging, kidnapping, armed robbery
  • Witnessing violence
  • Ongoing threat to life or liberty
  • Experiencing a particularly difficult divorce or traumatic job loss

The likelihood of developing PTSD increases based on certain individual or combined factors, such as:

  • Any previous mental health condition
  • Increased incidence or length of a traumatic event
  • Multiple traumatic events
  • Lack of social support from family, friends or the community
  • History of violence in the home
  • Learning disability
  • Age of the victim
  • Maternal trauma before birth

It has been demonstrated that people who have already received training in surviving traumatic events, such as police, firefighters, doctors, psychologists and first responders, are less at risk of PTSD after traumatic events.

Part 2 will continue with information about PTSD, comorbid conditions and treatments.

Consulted Resources

Canadian Mental Health Association

MedicineNet.com

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Other Resources

Mayo Clinic

WebMD

National Institute of Mental Health

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