Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop as a result of exposure to any physical or psychological trauma. The event that triggers PTSD can be physical, sexual or psychological and can be something the individual experienced personally or witnessed someone else go through.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is becoming more familiar and more widely acknowledged, but little is still known about PTSD and trauma. PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder that can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope and cause the following symptoms:
- Difficulty sleeping
While both trauma and PTSD are anxiety disorders, PTSD persists for more than 30 days, distinguishing it from the briefer Acute Stress Disorder. Trauma and PTSD can take the following three forms:
PTSD is recognized as an official disorder. To be classified as PTSD, symptoms must last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
Experiencing or witnessing any event that could be perceived as life-threatening can bring on PTSD. The following are all experiences that can lead to PTSD:
- Physical assault
- Sexual assault
- Drug addiction
- Natural disaster
Prisoners of war, soldiers and emergency services personnel are all at risk of developing PTSD. Physical, mental or sexual abuse can be triggers as can a violent crime, rape or even a traumatic accident. Experts are also seeing many incidences of PTSD and trauma among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan too.
The Science of PTSD
Traumatic events cause an overactive adrenaline response which creates deep neurological patterns in the brain. These patterns can persist long after the event that triggered the fear, making an individual hyper-responsive to future fearful situations. More than just a fear response, though, PTSD causes an actual biochemical change in the brain and body that is different from other psychiatric disorders. Many PTSD sufferers also display a low secretion of cortisol. During the usual fight-or-flight response brought on my many traumatic events, cortisol levels are higher rather than lower. Some research points to the idea that low cortisol levels may predispose individuals to PTSD. It is thought that trauma survivors with low cortisol experience a longer and more distressing response to a traumatic event, making them more at risk for developing PTSD. In contrast, others in the medical community maintain there is no clear relationship between cortisol levels and PTSD. There is evidence that susceptibility to PTSD is hereditary.
Does All Trauma Result in PTSD?
Experiencing a traumatic event doesn’t necessarily mean an individual will develop PTSD. While 50 to 90 percent of people will encounter trauma in the course of their lifetime, only about 8 percent of those will develop full PTSD. Predictors for those who will develop PTSD include an interaction of the following:
- Biological tendency
- Early childhood developmental experiences
- Severity of the trauma experienced
PTSD and Addiction
In addition to the problems PTSD and its less formal cousin trauma can cause, both can lead to or exacerbate substance abuse. Sufferers may attempt to ward off unwanted feelings and memories by self-medicating with prescription or illegal substances. PTSD can often lead to alcohol or drug abuse, and there are very few individuals in treatment for addiction that have not experienced some form of trauma.