PTSD Symptoms

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is “one of the most prevalent of all mental disorders, surpassed only by substance abuse disorders and depression,” according to the U.S. Government’s National Technical Information Service (NTIS). More than 70 percent of Americans experience a traumatic event sometime during their lifetime. PTSD affects people of all ages, of both sexes, of every economic and ethnic aspect of life. 

Wide Range of Symptoms

Since every traumatic event is different and no two people are exactly the same, the reactions or stress that are experienced after the event encompass a wide range of symptoms – both mental and physical. Symptoms can occur immediately or appear months even years after the event. Depending on the trauma, symptoms can be mild to severely life-changing. Defining what constitutes trauma is therefore important to understanding PTSD. Stubbing your big toe on a chair leg is not traumatic even though it hurt. A car accident may or may not be a traumatic event. A sudden, unexpected heart attack is traumatic.

Defining Trauma

Trauma is defined by the level of distress experienced not the event itself. Any overwhelming and unexpected life threatening event, large or small – from an auto collision, to natural disasters to violent physical attacks to horrific acts of war, that cause fear and helplessness is traumatic.  If a person has: fore-knowledge, is aware, somewhat prepared, has some level of emotional and physical control, is expecting they might be injured or killed, there might not be any trauma.

Everyone has varying degrees of stress: deadlines, sales quotas, final exams, weddings, arguments, break-ups, overdrawn bank accounts, and taxes just to name a few. These are all stressful but they are not traumatic events. 

Nothing Is Ever the Same

The trauma must put your life in danger. It must leave you shaken to your core. It must be unexpected and it is life-altering, either emotionally or physically. The trauma must be so terrific that it causes doubt in just about everything. It pretty much turns an ordinary life upside down and nothing is ever quite the same.

Trauma Effects Linger

Giving trauma a definition however, is far easier than describing the complicated, over-lapping symptoms, coexisting mental disorders and physical illnesses that can cause suffering for years. The reactions to trauma take one of three forms: normal stress, acute stress and Post Traumatic Stress. Similar symptoms are seen in all three forms, differing mainly in intensity and duration of both physical and mental distress. The effects of normal stress fade over time while the effects of trauma linger and even build over time. Severe stress can cause serious mental and physical problems.

Physical vs Mental Distress

Reactions to normal stress include: physical distress like rapid heart beat, sleep and eating disorders, a marked increase in tenseness, and being easily startled by loud unexpected noises, a spacey dizziness, occasional feelings of nausea and other intestinal difficulties, and a feeling of exhaustion – even after resting. Mental distress includes: a feeling of confusion, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of the event that seem to intrude into your normal routine, not being able to remember major portions of the event, and a feeling of confusion.

Emotional Distress

Emotional distress can include: some or all feelings of guilt, fear, shock, abandonment, strong feelings of anxiety, anger outbursts, a feeling of being alone and adrift, helpless and vulnerable. All of these feelings take their toll on close relationships. Being over-protected by family members may cause a person to become hostile and blaming. A person suffering with PTSD tends to stay at home in safe surroundings, withdrawn from the dangerous outside world. Performance at school or work begins to decline. There is a lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities including sex. This level of stress can begin to subside over a period of either days or weeks. The memories of the event are still strong but fading. A person begins to put their life back together. Days begin to be a mixture of positives and negatives but a feeling of relief slowly creeps into the person’s life.

The New Normal

Or, the misery of these new feelings doesn’t seem to fade. Some days are even worse, not better. Symptoms become so severe they interfere with daily activities. Strong feelings of anger are the new normal. The person feels more and more helpless and adrift in a world that seems unreal. Flashbacks and nightmares increase. When these symptoms continue and become worse beyond one month, the person will be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Constant Red Alert

The dazed, numb feelings continue to disrupt daily routines. People suffering with PTSD are on a constant level of red alert, and feel that if they relax their tight grip their entire life will unravel. They avoid all people, places and things that remotely remind them of the event. The person develops Agoraphobia, having fears of being outside and remains at home in order to avoid the possibility of triggering panic attacks accompanied by hyperventilation, trembling and lightheadedness. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) is another common problem occurring when the person constantly checks all the windows and doors making certain they are secured and locked. Other OCD symptoms may also occur.

Obesity Is Prevalent

Depending on the individual, physical problems need to be addressed in order to determine if their cause is from PTSD or are derived from completely separate issues. Chemical changes in the body occur causing high blood pressure, heart problems, muscle pain, and intestinal distress. These can include chronic diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain and irritable bowel syndrome. Eating and sleep disorders become normal. Obesity is prevalent.

Depression Very Common

PTSD can foster separate mental disorders. Depression is most common. Chemical changes in the brain make rational thought more difficult. Drug and alcohol dependence become weapons to battle anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, helplessness, nightmares and flashbacks. Paranoia, extreme anger, guilt, mood swings, risk-taking, impulsive behavior, gambling, recklessness, neglecting oneself and acting-out all put serious strain on relationships. PTSD not only hurts the individual but everyone around them as well.

Whole Family Suffers

Family members living with someone with PTSD suffer right along with them. Loved ones often react to PTSD in ways that allow the person to continue their patterns of substance abuse, acting-out or other destructive behaviors. The enablers share in the person’s turmoil and cultivate codependency by helping the person avoid facing reality. What appears on the surface as helping the victim is in fact hindering their recovery. Therefore, it is very important to break old habits and take on prior responsibilities, and create new patterns of positive activities and positive self-talk. 

Stay Positive

Eventually PTSD must be confronted which in itself is stressful. Stress management techniques can help smooth out the rough edges. There will also be periods of anger and hostility that seem on the edge of being out of control. Anger management techniques can do a lot to keep anger from boiling over. Battling PTSD, depression, substance abuse, relationship problems and assorted mental difficulties at the same time is no easy task and will require the assistance of trained professionals. A better approach might be to tackle the PTSD first with the idea that many of the other problems will dissipate as well. Most importantly stay positive, avoid negative people, places and things that remind you of the past terror and disconnect from harmful, negative relationships. Put pleasure and happiness back in your life and live in the present by practicing Mindfulness.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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