What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a label used to describe a condition that can occur after a person experiences a traumatic event during which they felt intense fear, horror or helplessness. Such traumatic events include war, terrorism, physical or sexual assault, natural disasters such as a bushfire or flood, a major car accident, being diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness such as cancer, and finding the body of someone who has committed suicide or been murdered.

Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can be divided into three categories; intrusive symptoms, avoidance symptoms and physical arousal symptoms. A person may experience a few, or all of these symptoms.

Intrusive symptoms include:

  • Distressing thoughts or images
  • Nightmares about the event
  • Feeling or acting as if the traumatic event were recurring, commonly known as “flashbacks”
  • Intense psychological distress when exposed to something that triggers memories of the traumatic event.

Avoidance symptoms include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the trauma, as well as any feelings associated with the trauma. It is common for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder sufferers to use alcohol or illicit drugs to try and block out unwanted memories and feelings.
  • Avoiding people, places and activities that trigger memories of the traumatic event.
  • not remembering an important part of the traumatic event
  • Decreased interest in and enjoyment of activities such as study, work and other pastimes, or a person may stop participating in such activities altogether.
  • Feeling detached from other people
  • An inability to feel joy or loving feelings
  • Not be able to see a future for themselves

The Physical Arousal Symptoms include:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Irritability or anger
  • Impaired concentration
  • Feeling always on the alert for signs of danger; the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder sufferer may be constantly scanning their surroundings for possible threats. For example, someone who has been physically assaulted may always sit close to the door so they can escape, a person who has been in a major car accident may feel on edge whilst in a car, thinking that another accident is about to happen.
  • A physical overreaction to sounds that remind them of the traumatic experience. For example an armed hold up victim may experience an intense startle response if they hear a car backfire as it sounds similar to gunshots.

Psychological Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in adults involves a number of aspects. Education and information about the condition, learning how to manage anxiety, anger and depression, exposure therapy where the sufferer confronts feared situations and memories, and cognitive therapy to address unhelpful, irrational thoughts and beliefs. Because the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can feel extremely overwhelming it is important that the treating Psychologist follows the clients lead and is sensitive to the painful feelings and memories that accompany trauma.