PTSD: Understanding the after-effects of trauma

Healing from trauma takes time and, for some, treatment from mental health professionals. It’s estimated that this year 5.2 million Americans will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an after-effect of trauma that can produce debilitating and long-term effects such as flashbacks, nightmares, physical and mental agitation, sudden anger and aggression, and emotional numbing. It’s a condition that has long been recognized among soldiers who have witnessed combat. Now it’s well-known that anyone who has experienced a severe traumatic event can develop the disorder. Catastrophic events such as the 9/11 attack, natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, or other traumas including sexual assault and accidents, can all cause PTSD in those exposed to such events.

We can’t predict who will develop symptoms after a trauma. Like sensitivity to pain, everyone experiences trauma differently. However, we do know that the likelihood is greater among people who experience intense trauma such as childhood sexual abuse and rape, or long-term exposure to war zone stressors. Nearly everyone will experience some symptoms of PTSD following exposure to a traumatic or catastrophic event, but current data shows that 8 percent of men and 20 percent of women will develop PTSD, and 30 percent of those will develop a chronic form that will persist in varying intensity throughout their lives.

PTSD is diagnosed based on the presence of a number of indicators: the existence of an outside traumatic event; intrusive recollections such as flashbacks or nightmares; avoidant behavior or emotional numbing to avoid trauma-related stimuli; hyper-vigilance or exaggerated startle response; the interruption of the individual’s normal social, occupational or other functioning, and the duration of symptoms for at least one month.

The first step in healing from a trauma is recognizing that traumas can happen to anyone and that PTSD is a common physiological and emotional response to trauma. People need to know that they aren’t weak, or losing their grip on reality. When we experience physical harm, the body takes time to heal. It’s the same with our mental and emotional processes. And, just as there are medical treatments to heal physical injuries, there are treatments to promote psychological healing as well.

Group counseling is the most effective form of support for trauma survivors. Participants can relate the details of the event in a safe, supportive atmosphere among other survivors. One of the most important aspects of healing from trauma is openness, acceptance and understanding from those around the survivor. Social isolation, or keeping one’s feelings, memories and fears to oneself, will only exacerbate the symptoms.

There are several medications approved by the FDA for the treatment of PTSD. Most are well tolerated and non-habit forming. But it is important to remember that while a medication will certainly help alleviate symptoms, it is unlikely to resolve the entire disorder alone. Medications hopefully reduce symptoms to a manageable level so the patient can then work on them in therapy.

If you suspect you or a loved one has PTSD, see your physician or a mental health professional. For more information, call Marietta Memorial Health Geriatric Psychiatric Unit at (740) 374-1501.

Dr. Hawkins is a Board Certified Psychiatrist who practices inpatient and outpatient care. He is the Medical Director of the Geriatric Behavioral Health Unit at Marietta Memorial Hospital. Dr. Hawkins is a native of Marietta.