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What is PTSD?

By on 07/28/2015
what is ptsd

What Is PTSD

We hear a lot about the word “PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder, but what exactly is it?

A common psychiatric condition, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is increasing in frequency in a world of wars and terrorism.  People exposed to terrifying situations, who witness or are injured by life threatening trauma, experience intense fear.  Fear is a normal, even healthy reaction, which results in chemical changes in the body to produce the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, molecules that induce the ‘fight or flight” reaction. The body’s reaction times speed up, increasing the chances for survival.

But in some people, the reaction never seems to disappear entirely.  PTSD usually develops a few months after the event that triggered it, but onset may delayed as long as years.  Horrifying trauma does not always cause PTSD.  In fact the majority of people do not develop the syndrome.  A soldier sees a buddy shot dead beside him and months later develops PTSD.  Another soldier also witnesses sudden, horrific death and does not develop PTSD.  Why? What is the difference?

Genetic Risk Factor:

what is ptsdScientists are studying this question.  One study drew blood from U.S. Marines before and after they served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Testing the blood of the Marines who developed PTSD, the study compared those findings to the results of the Marines who did not develop PTSD.  The scientists found that those who developed PTSD had immune systems that did not function as well as the systems of those people who did not come down with the condition.  This study and others indicate that the disorder is genetically influenced.  It has been known to run in families.

Certain genes have been identified as being involved, genes that are essential to producing proteins that either increase the fear reaction or dampen it.  Special imaging techniques have enabled the researchers to locate areas of the brain involved in experiencing fear and in PTSD.  Many studies are being done to find the causes of PTSD and identify those people most likely to develop it.

Other Risk Factors:

But genetics may only make the person more susceptible to PTSD under the right circumstances.  Other factors come into play as well.  Previous trauma, especially in childhood, a history of head injuries and a history of psychiatric problems increase the likelihood of developing PTSD following a traumatic event.  In addition, personality traits such as optimism, a history of handling stress and challenges well make the person less likely to show PTSD symptoms.  Having a support group helps preclude the disorder, just as being alone and isolated with feelings of helplessness increase the risk.

The disorder can appear at any age, even in childhood.  Women are more susceptible than men.  And the severity of the event can vary as well.  It can be war, terrorism, accident, assault, rape, natural disaster, or even the sudden, unexpected death of a family member.

What is PTSD?

what is ptsdIt is a condition with a constellation of symptoms that develops, usually within a few months of a traumatic event, in which the victim was injured or nearly injured or witnessed injuries or death.  There are three groups of symptoms.

1. Re-experiencing symptoms

  • Flashbacks – seeing the experience again and again within the mind, while experiencing the same physical manifestations, such as sweating, racing heart, rapid breathing.
  • Bad dreams – nightmares related to the event, interrupting sleep
  • Feelings of fear and dread for no reason

2. Avoidance symptoms

  • Staying away from things, places, people that cause memories of the event, either consciously or unconsciously
  • Becoming emotionally “numb”
  • Development of depression, guilt feelings or anxiety
  • Loss of the ability to feel pleasure or find interest in activities that used to be important
  • Sometimes difficulty in remembering the event

3. Hyper-arousal symptoms

  • Easily startled, overreacting
  • Becoming stressed, anxious, irritable, oversensitive
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Outbursts of anger

PTSD Manifested:

The intensity of these symptoms and the way they are expressed can vary considerably.  The person may become withdrawn, antisocial or grumpy, angry with a short fuse.  One woman described her husband as having “ass-hole’ syndrome, an unpleasant, grumpy man who had forgotten what happiness was.  The symptoms also worsen when the person is under excessive stress.

Some people do not exhibit the full-blown syndrome.  Their behavioral and personality changes may be subtle, just a decrease in their previous vitality and good humor.  The symptoms are rarely clear cut.  Excessive drinking or drug use may be the only signs initially.

Most people recover within months of onset of the symptoms, but the disorder can last for years or become chronic. The symptoms are life changing, interfering with home and family, with work and careers, with relationships.

Scientists will continue with their studies, probing into the causes, the chemical and neuro-endocrine changes that PTSD induces in the body, the genes that may put some people at greater risk for developing the condition.  those at risk people can be identified, the researchers will also be able to find therapies that can prevent the onset of the disorder.

Where to start?

what is ptsdPerhaps you are not sure if you suffer from PTSD?  Maybe you are just under a lot of stress and can’t seem to get ahead of it?  What should you do?  I recommend start by talking to your health care provider.  Confide in him/her and tell them you need their advice.  The two of you can discuss several options – come up with a plan.  This plan may include:

  • A local support group for PTSD or for other related problems like drugs or alcohol abuse
  • Perhaps a referral to a therapist or mentor who specializes in PTSD
  • Short or long term medication like an anti-anxiety med
  • Literature and online resources with information to help answer your questions
  • Family and relationship counselors and resources to help with stressful family situations
  • Self-help groups to learn alternative therapies which can be used in conjunction with conventional therapy and medications.  Techniques like  Qigong,   Tai Chi, Yoga, Meditation,  all do wonders to focus, center, ground and calm stress.  Additionally, therapeutic massage, acupuncture and aromatherapy work on the muscles, nervous system and chemistry for stress management.



1. As a Health and Wellness Coach  I do not treat PTSD, but instead, focus on teaching you successful strategies to help you manage the stresses associated with PTSD, or associated with any other stressful situation in your life.  These techniques used in combination with Biofeedback have proven to be more successful than traditional “relaxation” techniques, because relaxation only addresses one part of the stress-response.



2. Whether or not you are a veteran, the Wounded Warriors Program is not only an admirable organization, they also are a great resource for PTSD.

3. Check out WebMD for more information



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