Post-traumatic stress disorder

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that affects people who have witnessed or been involved in a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD persist for more than one month after exposure to a traumatic event, and can disrupt the lives of people affected and their families. PTSD is has a long history and has been referred to by a number of different names in the past, including ‘shell shock’ and ‘battle fatigue’.

Causes of PTSD

PTSD happens to people who have experienced very unpleasant, traumatic events in their lives. These events usually involve witnessing or being personally at risk of death, near death, or serious injury. Being involved in the horrors of war is one of the best known triggers for PTSD, but a wide variety of other situations can cause it.

These include motor accidents, physical and sexual assault, armed robbery, natural disasters such as a bushfire or cyclone, or having a heart attack or other life-threatening medical diagnosis. People such as emergency workers and ambulance officers, whose work brings them into frequent contact with unpleasant events, are not immune and may experience PTSD.

PTSD symptoms

People with PTSD usually show a similar range of symptoms, including the following:

  • persistently re-experiencing the event (recollections, flashbacks, vivid dreams and nightmares);
  • avoiding places, sounds or other things which trigger memories of the event;
  • a generally ‘flat’ mood, or emotional ‘numbing’;
  • irritability, and being easily upset, startled or angered; and
  • having trouble sleeping.

Because of a reluctance to talk about unpleasant experiences, many cases of PTSD go undetected for years. Often the problem is mistaken for anxiety or depression.

People with PTSD have a higher incidence of alcohol and other substance abuse. PTSD commonly leads to problems with relationships. Depression is also more common among people with PTSD.

Treatment

PTSD can be effectively treated with education, counselling, support and medicines, as well as management of associated mood disorders and substance abuse problems.

Cognitive behaviour therapy, a form of psychotherapy, is one of the main treatments used for PTSD. Another treatment known as eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) can also be beneficial. EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that is combined with eye movements (or other types of rhythmic stimulation) to stimulate the brain's information processing mechanisms.

PTSD can have a major effect on the individual and their family members, but sufferers often hide or diminish their symptoms. If you or someone you know has symptoms that may indicate PTSD, you should contact your doctor to talk about it.

Last Reviewed: 31 October 2012
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References

1. Post-traumatic stress disorder (revised October 2008). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2012 Jul. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Nov 2012).
2. Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. Australian Guidelines for the Management of Adults with Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder [published 2007, Feb; accessed Nov 2012]. Available from: http://www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au/resources/resources-guidelines.html#1
3. Bisson J. Post-traumatic stress syndrome. Clinical Evidence [online] 2010 [cited Feb 3]. URL: http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/ (accessed 2012 Nov).
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