What is PTSD?

In order to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) it is important to first recognize and understand the key component that underlies it, trauma. 

In order to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) it is important to first recognize and understand the key component that underlies it, trauma. 

In order to understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) it is important to first recognize and understand the key component that underlies it, trauma. Trauma is a naturally occurring event, often outside the individual's control, that causes extreme distress or disturbance to the emotional, physical, spiritual, and/or psychological well being of the individual. Unfortunately, traumatic events are far more common than most people realize and almost all people will experience a traumatic event in one form or another throughout their life. However, the severity and degree to which the traumatic event affects the individual may vary significantly.

Traumas come in many forms and may include:

  • The sudden or unexpected loss of a loved one or a friend.
  • As the result of victimization (including physical, financial, or sexual assault).
  • Through the experiences associated with a major natural disaster.
  • Through exposure to extreme violence or stressful situations such as those experienced by soldiers during war or first responders on the job.

For many, these experiences cause short term distress until the individual is able to appropriately process and overcome it, often through the help of strong social supports and adequate coping mechanisms. Conversely, for other individuals, the trauma may be too extreme or their supports and coping mechanism too inadequate in order to help them overcome this distress in a healthy way. In these cases, the individuals often continue to experience emotional distress such as extreme fear or horror and may eventually develop PTSD as a result.

So what is PTSD? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (formerly known as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue") is a psychological disorder that develops as a result of prolonged periods of stress caused by a traumatic event. Simply, PTSD results when the memories or fears associated with a particular event persist long after the danger associated with that event has passed. This can wreak havoc in the individual's life by negatively affecting their interpersonal relationships, work, and sleep and may also inadvertently increase their likelihood of abusing substances as a means to cope. Interestingly, women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men and Canada has one of the highest rates of PTSD in the world. In fact, some research estimates suggest that as many as 9.2% of Canadians will experience PTSD in their life. Additionally, it is important to note that PTSD, or even simply the effects of a trauma, can occur from merely hearing about a traumatic event that has occurred to a loved one rather than personally experiencing it one's self.

Regardless of the source, PTSD is often associated with nightmares, anxiety, extreme emotional arousal from one's environment, and can also lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. If left untreated, acute PTSD (which may last only a few months) can easily transition into chronic PTSD lasting many years. Likewise, accurate diagnosis of PTSD can be tricky business. In order to be diagnosed with it individuals must display all of the following symptoms for a minimum of one month:

A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom including:

  • Flashbacks (reliving the event over and over in one's mind)
  • Nightmares
  • Terrifying thoughts

A minimum of one avoidance symptom including:

  • Avoidance of people, places, and things that are associated with the event
  • Avoidance of thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma

A minimum of two hyperarousal symptoms including:

  • Disturbances of sleep
  • Angry or emotional outbursts
  • Irritability
  • Hypervigilance
  • Self injurious behavior

A minimum of two cognition and mood symptoms including:

  • Feelings of guilt, shame or blame
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Habit and behaviour changes following the event
  • Loss of memory around details of the trauma

The presence of these symptoms may be an indicator than an individual is struggling with PTSD. Although many people who experience traumatic events will not develop this condition, others do. PTSD can occur at any time regardless of age, gender or race. If you believe you or a friend may be struggling with PTSD please check out our next article about the various treatment options.