Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: How to Get Help (or Help Someone Else)

June 27, 2017 7:00 AM

Many people think PTSD is only for vets, but the condition affects millions of Americans. Here’s what to know about common causes and treatment.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is commonly associated with military veterans who have served in combat roles. 

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But anyone can develop the condition, which is triggered in some people after seeing or experiencing a scary or dangerous event.

Roughly 7.7 million Americans — or about 3.5 percent of the population — have PTSD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Women are more likely to be affected than men.

Multiple risk factors can prompt the disorder.

“The one very strong prediction is exposure to previous trauma, especially childhood trauma like sexual or physical abuse,” says Israel Liberzon, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “Severe or prolonged trauma is also a risk factor, such as repeated assaults that we often see in domestic violence cases.”

Physical attacks by another individual are more likely to lead to PTSD than natural disasters, Liberzon says. And a presence of other mental health issues such as severe anxiety or depression prior to trauma is another risk factor.

Liberzon answered some common questions about PTSD.

What experiences might trigger PTSD?

Liberzon: Any trauma can cause PTSD. Some examples include serious accidents, natural disasters, interpersonal violence or sexual assault. Exposure to serious events (like witnessing a death or witnessing sexual assault) can also cause PTSD. First responders and medics can also experience PTSD.

What are some signs of PTSD?

Liberzon: Common symptoms include reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares, avoiding situations that remind you of the event, negative changes in beliefs and feelings, and feeling constantly alert for possible danger. In most cases, symptoms ease up or go away with time. If these symptoms persist for months after the trauma, get worse, or start interfering with normal life activities, this might signify that there might be a larger issue.

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What is the difference between PTSD in children versus adults?

Liberzon: The main difference is the symptoms might be less overt or less clear, and children might not be able or willing to report them. If a child was exposed to a traumatic situation and over the following months performance in school deteriorates or behavior changes (becoming sad, withdrawn, or have changes in sleep or appetite), the child should be seen by a mental health professional.

How is PTSD treated?

Liberzon: There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD. Both psychotherapy (talking to the therapist) and pharmacotherapy (taking medication) are good options. Patients and mental health providers will use these various options and decide what might work best for the specific individual.

How can people manage their PTSD?

Liberzon: Many people try to manage PTSD on their own, but it is better to consult with a doctor or therapist because the natural tendency is to avoid all reminders of trauma, and this might further exacerbate the symptoms. It is important not to try and cope by using drugs or alcohol because these can make treatment and recovery more difficult.

If someone is struggling with PTSD, what should they do?

Liberzon: Tell someone. Tell your doctor, social worker or at least a family member or a friend. Seeing a mental health professional as early as possible is the best option, but people often find it hard to find one or approach one. It is OK to start with someone they trust and who will care about them.

What advice would you give to friends or family of someone with PTSD?

Liberzon: I would first talk to the person without necessarily assigning “diagnosis” but suggesting that there might be a way to get help to deal with memories, dreams or other consequences of a traumatic event. If they are agreeable, I would offer to go see a psychiatrist or psychologist with them.

If this is not possible, I would consider talking to their doctor or their social worker and try to engage them in the process. Bringing in someone the person trusts might also be useful. Finally, if one feels the situation is dangerous and there is a potential harm to self or others calling an emergency line or emergency services or going to the ER might be required.