June is PTSD Awareness Month. PTSD stands for post traumatic stress disorder. It’s frequently associated with military service, but can affect anyone who experiences an event that leaves him or her with symptoms such as losing interest in pastimes that were previously enjoyed; always feeling as if in danger; difficulty sleeping or having nightmares; experiencing flashbacks; getting upset by things that remind one of the troubling experience; or feeling cut off from family or friends. WebMD categorizes symptoms into four basic patterns: reliving the event; reliving situations that are reminders of the event; feeling numb; or feeling keyed up.
People who never served in the military, but who experience accident scenes, catastrophic storms, sexual abuse, violence, being lost, animal bites, car accidents or other traumatizing events are also potential victims of PTSD.
Also according to WebMD, “PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you may have PTSD.”
Fortunately, PTSD is highly treatable with psychological counseling. Medication is sometimes prescribed as well. By far, the largest impediment to successful treatment is the sufferer’s failure to take advantage of treatment. Unfortunately, some people still retain a fear of admitting that they aren’t in control of themselves, or that they are seeking treatment for a mental disorder. But treatment is essential, because PTSD problems are real and can have serious effects on physical health, too.
Thinking of PTSD as a problem involving brain chemistry can be helpful in realizing that, as with any other organ of the body, things can be out of kilter from time to time and having that happen is not equivalent to having a character flaw. In fact, people who suffer from PTSD may have structural differences in their brains, and also hormonal changes that can be measured. PTSD sufferers have been found to have abnormalities in the levels of certain stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, all of which govern the body’s response to threats. Abnormal levels can make us feel as though we are constantly in a heightened state of arousal and fear. Victims of PTSD who attempt to self-medicate by using illegal substances is a significant factor and one which often leads to treatment failures, so interventions that combine substance abuse treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy are of particular interest in a harm reduction model of treatment.