Four patients sit across from a therapist in a group therapy session for individuals suffering from PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder that develops after a traumatic event. It can completely disrupt an individual’s life, making it hard to sleep, relax, concentrate, and function.

You may have heard that PTSD mainly develops in soldiers, but it’s actually more common than you might think. PTSD affects around 8 million adults in the U.S. each year, and there are many types of traumatic events that can trigger the disorder.

If you or a loved one has lived through trauma and is having trouble coping, it could be PTSD. Learn more about the signs and symptoms, why PTSD develops, and how to treat this condition.

Symptoms of PTSD

People with PTSD experience a very distinct set of symptoms that can be grouped into different categories.

Re-Experiencing Symptoms

These include intrusive thoughts about a traumatic event, nightmares, and flashbacks. A flashback is a frightening and intense experience where an individual feels as if they are living through the trauma again.

Avoidance Symptoms

People with PTSD often seek to avoid all reminders of what happened. They may refuse to go to certain places, see certain people, or talk about what they went through. They try to push all thoughts of the event out of their mind, but flashbacks and nightmares can make this difficult.

Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms

PTSD often causes hyperarousal, a condition marked by heightened vigilance and reactivity. You may feel “on edge” constantly, as if you cannot relax, and get startled easily. Hyperarousal also causes insomnia, trouble concentrating, and outbursts of anger.

Cognitive Symptoms

People living with PTSD experience changes in the way they think and feel. They may become more irritable, anxious, and fearful. They also tend to have negative thoughts about themselves or the world. For example, you might believe the world is a dangerous place and no one can be trusted, or that you’re a bad person and are to blame for the trauma. This frequently prompts behavioral changes like withdrawing from family and friends or abusing alcohol and drugs.

How is PTSD Diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with PTSD, you must experience all of these symptoms for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

Your primary care provider might diagnose your condition, or they may refer you to a mental health specialist like a psychiatrist or psychologist. If you have some of these symptoms but do not meet the criteria for PTSD, that doesn’t mean you aren’t struggling or that your experience isn’t valid. Even those without a diagnosis can benefit from trauma-focused mental health treatment.

A young male patient sits across from a therapist as they review his mental health symptoms to reach a diagnosis

What Causes PTSD?

PTSD is caused by experiencing a traumatic event, including but not limited to:

  • Physical assault and other violent crimes
  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Accidents
  • Terrorist attacks/mass shootings
  • A difficult childbirth or miscarriage
  • The sudden/unexpected death of a loved one
  • Exposure to violence first-hand (e.g., through one’s job)
  • Military combat/exposure to war

Many people experience PTSD symptoms immediately after a traumatic event, but these symptoms often resolve on their own within a few weeks. When symptoms last for less than a month, the condition is known as acute stress disorder.

Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. This makes the exact cause difficult to pinpoint. Researchers believe there may be other factors contributing to this disorder.

Risk Factors for PTSD

Researchers have identified several things that may increase someone’s risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Past trauma

Those who’ve experienced trauma in the past are also at increased risk for developing PTSD later in life following a traumatic event. This is especially true for childhood abuse survivors.

History of mental health conditions

Someone who was already living with a mental health disorder, or who has a family history of mental illness, is more likely to develop PTSD in response to trauma.

Substance abuse

People who abuse alcohol and drugs are also at more risk for PTSD. Additionally, individuals who live through a traumatic event may start abusing substances to self-medicate symptoms. When substance use disorders occur at the same time as PTSD, the two conditions are known as co-occurring disorders.

Chronic stress

Those under severe stress have a harder time coping with trauma. If you are living with chronic stress or experience other stressors following a traumatic event (e.g., financial stress or family conflict), you may be more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Genetics

There is some evidence that genetics play a role in this disorder. Researchers have been examining a few specific genetic markers: the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR), the retinoid-related orphan receptor alpha (RORA) protein, and genes related to the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. We also know that a family history of PTSD is a risk factor.

Lack of social support

Individuals who do not have support from family and friends following a traumatic event are at increased risk of developing PTSD. The reverse is also true – having a strong support system can decrease the chances of lasting negative effects.

What Happens if PTSD Is Left Untreated?

If left untreated, PTSD may disrupt an individual’s entire life. It can lead to relationship problems, decreased performance at work or school, and difficulty functioning in day-to-day life. It can cause chronic mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse. Untreated PTSD may also contribute to physical issues like insomnia or chronic pain.

Long-term Effects of PTSD

Trauma has many long-term effects on both mental and physical health. According to Harvard Health Publishing, living through a traumatic event may increase inflammation in the body, which contributes to many diseases. Additionally, childhood trauma increases the risk of several different conditions such as heart attack, stroke, cancer, obesity, depression and other psychiatric disorders.

A young woman sits across from her therapist as they discuss a treatment program for the patient's PTSD

Treatment for PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious and sometimes chronic condition, but there are many effective ways to treat it. Therapy is generally recommended as the primary treatment for PTSD. Your doctor or psychiatrist may also prescribe medication. In some cases, medication and therapy together produce improved outcomes, but medication alone is not as effective.

PTSD Therapy

Traditional talk therapy (psychotherapy) may be beneficial, but there are also a lot of specialized therapies that have been proven effective for PTSD treatment.

Exposure Therapy

Also called Prolonged Exposure (PE), this therapy helps clients face their memories of a traumatic event along with any distressing triggers. There are two types of exposure in this approach: imaginal and in vivo.

Imaginal exposure simply involves discussing the traumatic experience with the therapist, recalling details about the event and verbally processing them. In vivo exposure means facing people, places, and situations in real life that trigger memories of the trauma. In vivo exposure usually takes place between sessions and is assigned as homework. Both of these exposure approaches have the same goal: to teach the client that memories of the trauma cannot harm them and are not to be feared.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a counseling approach that teaches you to recognize your thought patterns and how they influence your feelings and behaviors. In CBT, you learn to change negative thoughts and modify harmful behaviors. A meta-analysis of various PTSD treatment studies found that a subtype of CBT called trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) was very effective at reducing symptoms.

Eye-movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

The same PTSD treatment analysis ranked EMDR the highest for reducing symptom severity. This therapy was developed specifically for treating PTSD and uses repetitive movements like eye movements and tapping to help clients process their traumatic memories. During EMDR sessions, you will talk about your traumatic experience while the therapist guides you through a repetitive motion. It is believed that these movements help you access and reprocess traumatic memories.

Somatic Therapy

Somatic therapy taps into the connection between body and mind. The basic theory behind this approach is that the autonomic nervous system is disrupted by traumatic experiences, and the body retains memories of the trauma that make it difficult to return to a normal state. Somatic therapy focuses on clients’ bodily sensations. It seeks to release physical tension, guiding the client to a calmer physiological state.

Other Types of Therapy

Although certain types of therapy seem to be more effective for treating PTSD, there are many other counseling approaches that can be used. It’s important to find the approach that works best for you. You may have to try several different types or go to different therapists before you find the right fit.

Medications for PTSD

Although medication alone doesn’t produce very effective results for PTSD, it may improve treatment outcomes when taken along with therapy. Generally, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are considered the best types of medications for PTSD. These drugs help balance chemicals in your brain that regulate mood. Your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe any one of these medications:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

Currently, the FDA has only approved sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) for the treatment of PTSD. However, your healthcare provider may prescribe a different medication “off-label” if they believe it will help treat your symptoms or if you experience side effects from other medications. Each individual should work with their provider to determine the best treatment for their PTSD.

Advanced Treatment for PTSD

If counseling and/or medication does not completely resolve your symptoms, it may be time to try a more advanced approach to treatment. High Focus Centers offers a Trauma Enhanced Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). This program focuses on achieving a sense of safety and stabilization. We have two levels of programming to accommodate a variety of needs.

If you’re interested in trying Trauma Enhanced IOP or want to inquire for a loved one, call High Focus Centers at (800) 877-3628. You can also reach out online and an admissions representative will be in touch shortly.