By Kelly L. Forys-Donahue, Ph. D., Clinical Psychologist, Public Health CommandAugust 6, 2012
PTSD. These four little letters have been the source of much confusion, misunderstanding, pain, and now hope. Yes, you read that correctly, hope. PTSD, which stands for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a reaction to experiencing or witnessing one or more terrible events. The one, sure-fire way to prevent PTSD is to avoid seeing or being involved in any horrible event or scene that may cause you distress. This is easier said than done, especially for service members in times of war.
Although you may not be able to avoid all stressful and disastrous situations, there are things that you can do to help prevent PTSD. These things include creating a strong social support network, getting enough sleep, maintaining mental and physical health, and engaging in activities that make you feel good--physically, emotionally and mentally.
Even if you make every effort to prevent PTSD, it can still occur, and that does not mean that you are weak or defective. All kinds of people can get PTSD--children, adults, men, women, civilians, service members, officers, enlisted, tall, short, etc.
PTSD occurs when an individual has several symptoms that impa
ct his/her ability to function in life. These symptoms usually occur within three months of a traumatic experience; however, symptoms can occur up to one year following the event. There are three main types of symptoms that occur in PTSD:
Individuals with PTSD may have flashbacks, which are experiences of feeling as if the individual is back in the traumatic moment. Flashbacks are scary because they seem very real and can last for a few seconds or for hours. Flashbacks can occur at any time, with or without a trigger of the disturbing event. Another kind of memory occurs when you dream. Nightmares of the event are common and make it really tough to get a good night's sleep.
It makes sense that an individual with PTSD would want to avoid any reminders of the horrific event, and that is exactly what happens! In addition to avoiding places, smells and conversation about the event, the avoidance can spread to avoiding pleasurable things that used to be enjoyable because of a fear that the happy experience might trigger memories of the bad event. When an individual begins to avoid things that were once enjoyed, pleasure in life decreases, which can cause problems in relationships, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, hopeless feelings, numbness or detachment from life.
Individuals with PTSD are often on "high alert," meaning that they cannot relax. They tend to be startled easily, and they may hear or see things that are not there. They may feel angry, irritable or guilty, and they may do things that are harmful to themselves, like drinking or reckless driving, to try to cope with these symptoms.
PTSD is not fun, but the good news is that it is treatable, and the earlier that it is identified, the quicker the improvement. You wouldn't keep walking on a broken leg, would you? NO, you would go see the doctor ASAP and start treatment to heal the leg. Similarly, you do not need to live with the negative symptoms of PTSD. Getting help early and often improves the outcomes, but it is never too late to get help. Even if you have been dealing with symptoms of PTSD for a long time, treatments will help you get better. Treatments often include a combination of medication (especially to help with sleep) and talk therapy or counseling. Treatments can occur in individual or in group settings.
Counselors treat thousands of people for PTSD each year, and they will help to determine the best combination and course of treatment for each case. Therapists trained in the treatment of PTSD are available at behavioral health clinics on post, in the civilian community, and in Veterans Affairs clinics. If you or someone you know is showing signs of PTSD, do them a favor and get them help. Their symptoms can be relieved, and they can "be themselves" again. Do not fall into the trap of medicating with alcohol or other drugs because these will only worsen PTSD symptoms and prolong recovery in the long run. Identifying the problem is the first step, and making a call to get help is the next. Don't let four little letters rule you!