What is PTSD: meaning, symptoms and causes explained

What is PTSD? In this guide, we debunk the myths around post-traumatic stress disorder, challenge the taboos and offer the tools needed to deal with some of the most misunderstood mental health issues affecting us, our families and friends. 

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What is PTSD? In this guide, we debunk the myths around post-traumatic stress disorder, challenge the taboos and offer the tools needed to deal with some of the most misunderstood mental health issues affecting us, our families and friends. 
 
Life is full of ups and downs, but thankfully for many of us these events will pass without too much cause for concern. However, for some, who sadly experience traumatic life events, these can leave a lasting impression.

Post-traumatic stress disorder often occurs when a person experiences traumatic and distressing events and continues to relive them. They might harbour feelings of depression, anxiety and even guilt. Better understanding of this will allow us to spot the signs when we, or someone we love, needs help.

This month, Dr Radha Modgil, a medical doctor, and experts from the Mental Health Foundation are shining a light on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They offer reassurance, expose potential causes and symptoms and share advice on where to seek help.

What is PTSD

‘PTSD is a form of anxiety disorder brought on by traumatic, frightening or distressing life events,’ says Dr Radha. ‘These events might include, but are not limited to, a serious accident, an assault, health problems or childbirth experiences. When a person experiences PTSD, they may relive the traumatic event either through bad dreams or flashbacks.

They often experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. For people with PTSD, their symptoms are so severe they have a profound impact on their everyday life, often affecting their sleep, concentration, overall happiness and ability to function.’

Causes of PTSD

‘PTSD is estimated to impact around one in every three people who experience a traumatic life event,’ explains Dr Radha, ‘but it’s complex and there is no clear reason why it affects some people and not others.

There’s also the issue around timing, which can make it even more difficult to recognise. Some people develop PTSD very quickly after a traumatic experience, where for others it can take weeks, months or even years to come to the fore.

For those who have experienced multiple traumatic experiences over time, such as emergency services workers, or for those who have suffered abuse and longstanding trauma from an early age, it may take years for the condition to appear and it is often referred to as complex PTSD. The symptoms are much the same but the condition may also have an impact on a young person’s development.’

Symptoms of PTSD

  • People with PTSD may have trouble sleeping and may suffer from night terrors or flashbacks
  • They may feel depressed or suffer from low mood
  • Many feel anxious, irritable and even harbour feelings of guilt or shame
  • People with PTSD can often find it difficult to concentrate, to express themselves and to live their everyday life
  • People who suffer from traumatic life experiences early on may also have difficulty handling and expressing their emotions and struggle to build positive relationships

How to get help for PTSD
 
‘It’s important to remember that it’s completely normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts following trauma,’ says Dr Radha, ‘but thankfully for most people the effects will subside in a matter of weeks. If you’re worried about your symptoms, or if they have been going on longer than four weeks, speak to your GP. Depending on the situation, they can refer you to mental health specialists for further assessment and treatment.

‘The good news is that PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event or series of events. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur, but there are a number of options available, including:

  • Simple observation to check whether a person is coping with a situation before intervening
  • A prescription of drugs such as antidepressants if necessary
  • Psychological therapies such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). It’s worth noting that you can refer yourself directly to a psychological therapy service.’

Help yourself and others

‘More advice and guidance from the NHS can be found online by simply typing “PTSD” into your search engine,’ says Dr Radha. ‘You are not alone and should never feel ashamed about anything that has happened to you or for the way you are feeling.’

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