Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.
Among those who may experience PTSD are military troops who served in the Vietnam and Gulf Wars; rescue workers involved in the aftermath of disasters like the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.; survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing; survivors of accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes; immigrants fleeing violence in their countries; survivors of earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes; and people who witness traumatic events. Family members of victims also can develop the disorder. PTSD can occur in people of any age, including children and adolescents.
An estimated 5.2 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or approximately 3.6 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have PTSD (Narrow et al., 1998). About 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD at some point after the war (Robins & Regiew, 1991). The disorder also has been detected among veterans of the Persian Gulf War, with some estimates running as high as 8 percent (The NIMH Genetics Workgroup, 1998). More than twice as many women as men experience PTSD following exposure to trauma (Regier et al., 1998).
Depression, alcohol or other substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with PTSD. The likelihood of treatment success is increased when these other conditions are appropriately diagnosed and treated as well.
Complex PTSD (sometimes called "Disorder of Extreme Stress") is found among individuals who have been exposed to prolonged traumatic circumstances, especially during childhood, such as childhood sexual abuse. Developmental research is revealing that many brain and hormonal changes may occur as a result of early, prolonged trauma, and contribute to difficulties with memory, learning, and regulating impulses and emotions. Combined with a disruptive, abusive home environment that does not foster healthy interaction, these brain and hormonal changes may contribute to severe behavioral difficulties (such as impulsivity, aggression, sexual acting out, eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse, and self-destructive actions), emotional regulation difficulties (such as intense rage, depression, or panic) and mental difficulties (such as extremely scattered thoughts, dissociation, and amnesia). As adults, these individuals often are diagnosed with depressive disorders, personality disorders or dissociative disorders. Treatment often takes much longer, may progress at a much slower rate, and requires a sensitive and structured treatment program delivered by a trauma specialist.
Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal especially when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common. Most people with PTSD try to avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month.
Symptoms associated with reliving the traumatic event:
Symptoms related to avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event:
Changes frequently made after the event:
Medical or emotional problems:
Research is continuing to reveal factors that may lead to PTSD. People who have been abused as children or who have had other previous traumatic experiences are more likely to develop the disorder. In addition, it used to be believed that people who tend to be emotionally numb after a trauma were showing a healthy response; but now some researchers suspect that people who experience this emotional distancing may be more prone to PTSD.
Studies in animals and humans have focused on pinpointing the specific brain areas and circuits involved in anxiety and fear, which are important for understanding anxiety disorders such as PTSD. Fear, an emotion that evolved to deal with danger, causes an automatic, rapid protective response in many systems of the body. It has been found that the fear response is coordinated by a small structure deep inside the brain, called the amygdala. The amygdala, although relatively small, is a very complicated structure, and recent research suggests that posttraumatic stress disorder may be associated with abnormal activation of the amygdala.
Once fear is conditioned in the amygdala, it is virtually indelible. However, the neural pathways from the amygdala to the hippocampus and to cortical regions such as the frontal lobes allow its suppression until triggered. Fear rapidly returns when the individual is re-exposed to the trauma related material. An increase in stressors seems to differentially affect the fear-inducing and the fear-inhibiting pathways. High stress levels decrease the capacity of the inhibitory pathway to suppress fear, and increase the ability of conditioned fear pathways to induce it. Thus, the fear induced by re-exposure of traumatic material indicates a failure of inhibition on the part of the hippocampus, and is evidence that the traumatic episode is not integrated as a narrative, spatio-temporal event in autobiographical memory. Furthermore, the heightened sensitivity of exposure of PTSD patients to trauma-related material, or traumatic imagery, results in an increase in fearfulness in response to stimuli which are not truly life-threatening.
Studies using MRI in PTSD have measured volume of the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in learning and memory. This line of research was prompted by studies in animals showing that high levels of cortisol seen in stress are associated with damage to the hippocampus. Patients with combat-related PTSD had an 8 percent decrease in right hippocampal volume when compared with controls. Deficits in free verbal recall tasks were associated with this decrease. A decrease of 12 percent in left hippocampal volume was found in patients with a history of PTSD related to severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. Reduced hippocampal volume was associated with dissociative symptoms in women who had a history of childhood sexual abuse.
People with PTSD tend to have abnormal levels of key hormones involved in response to stress. When people are in danger, they produce high levels of natural opiates, which can temporarily mask pain. Scientists have found that people with PTSD continue to produce those higher levels even after the danger has passed; this may lead to the blunted emotions associated with the condition.
Some studies have shown that cortisol levels are lower than normal and epinephrine and norepinephrine are higher than normal. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter released during stress, and one of its functions is to activate the hippocampus, the brain structure involved with organizing and storing information for long-term memory.
This action of norepinephrine is thought to be one reason why people generally can remember emotionally arousing events better than other situations. Under the extreme stress of trauma, norepinephrine may act longer or more intensely on the hippocampus, leading to the formation of abnormally strong memories that are then experienced as flashbacks or intrusions. Since cortisol normally limits norepinephrine activation, low cortisol levels may represent a significant risk factor for developing PTSD.
Treatment for PTSD typically begins with a detailed evaluation, and development of a treatment plan that meets the unique needs of the survivor. Generally, PTSD-specific-treatment is begun only when the survivor is safely removed from a crisis situation. For instance, if currently exposed to trauma (such as by ongoing domestic or community violence, abuse, or homelessness), severely depressed or suicidal, experiencing extreme panic or disorganized thinking, or in need of drug or alcohol detoxification, addressing these crisis problems becomes part of the first treatment phase. Other strategies for treatment include:
A number of medications that were originally approved for treatment of depression have been found to be effective for posttraumatic stress disorder. If your doctor prescribes an antidepressant, you will need to take it for several weeks before symptoms start to fade. It is important not to get discouraged and stop taking these medications before they've had a chance to work.
Some of the newest antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medications act in the brain on a chemical messenger called serotonin. SSRIs tend to have fewer side effects than older antidepressants. People do sometimes report feeling slightly nauseated or jittery when they first start taking SSRIs, but that usually disappears with time. Some people also experience sexual dysfunction when taking some of these medications. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI will usually correct bothersome problems. It is important to discuss side effects with your doctor so that he or she will know when there is a need for a change in medication.
Fluoxetine, sertraline, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, and citalopram are among the SSRIs commonly prescribed for PTSD. These medications are started at a low dose and gradually increased until they reach a therapeutic level.
Similarly, antidepressant medications called tricyclics are started at low doses and gradually increased. Tricyclics have been around longer than SSRIs and have been more widely studied for treating anxiety disorders. They are as effective as the SSRIs, but many physicians and patients prefer the newer drugs because the tricyclics sometimes cause dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, and weight gain. When these problems persist or are bothersome, a change in dosage or a switch in medications may be needed.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves working with cognitions to change emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Exposure therapy, is one form of CBT unique to trauma treatment which uses careful, repeated, detailed imagining of the trauma (exposure) in a safe, controlled context, to help the survivor face and gain control of the fear and distress that was overwhelming in the trauma. In some cases, trauma memories or reminders can be confronted all at once ("flooding"). For other individuals or traumas it is preferable to work gradually up to the most severe trauma by using relaxation techniques and either starting with less upsetting life stresses or by taking the trauma one piece at a time ("desensitization").
Along with exposure, CBT for trauma includes learning skills for coping with anxiety (such as breathing retraining or biofeedback) and negative thoughts ("cognitive restructuring"), managing anger, preparing for stress reactions ("stress inoculation"), handling future trauma symptoms, as well as addressing urges to use alcohol or drugs when they occur ("relapse prevention"), and communicating and relating effectively with people ("social skills" or marital therapy).
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new treatment of traumatic memories which involves elements of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, combined with techniques (eye movements, hand taps, sounds) which create an alteration of attention back and forth across the person's midline. While the theory and research are still evolving with this form of treatment, there is some evidence that the therapeutic element unique to EMDR, attentional alteration, may facilitate accessing and processing traumatic material.
Group treatment is often an ideal therapeutic setting because trauma survivors are able to risk sharing traumatic material with the safety, cohesion, and empathy provided by other survivors. As group members achieve greater understanding and resolution of their trauma, they often feel more confident and able to trust. As they discuss and share coping of trauma-related shame, guilt, rage, fear, doubt, and self-condemnation, they prepare themselves to focus on the present rather than the past. Telling one's story (the "trauma narrative") and directly facing the grief, anxiety, and guilt related to trauma enables many survivors to cope with their symptoms, memories, and other aspects of their lives.
Brief psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on the emotional conflicts caused by the traumatic event, particularly as they relate to early life experiences. Through the retelling of the traumatic event to a calm, empathic, compassionate and non-judgmental therapist, the survivor achieves a greater sense of self-esteem, develops effective ways of thinking and coping, and more successfully deals with the intense emotions that emerge during therapy. The therapist helps the survivor identify current life situations that set off traumatic memories and worsen PTSD symptoms.
Psychiatric disorders commonly co-occurring with PTSD
Psychiatric disorders commonly co-occurring with PTSD include: depression, alcohol/substance abuse, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders. Although crises that threaten the safety of the survivor or others must be addressed first, the best treatment results are achieved when both PTSD and the other disorder(s) are treated together rather than one after the other. This is especially true for PTSD and alcohol/substance abuse.