Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health disorder triggered by particularly distressing life events.
One in 10 people will experience it, according to PTSD UK.
The anxiety disorder can be triggered by serious road accidents, prolonged sexual or physical abuse, military combat, traumatic childbirth and being caught up in natural disasters.
Sufferers will often relive a traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks. They may also feel isolated, irritable or guilty.
To coincide with World Mental Health day, we delved deeper into the world of PTSD to look at symptoms, diagnosis and how to access treatment.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder which occurs in response to a traumatic event.
It affects one in five firefighters, one in three teenagers who have survived a horrific car crash, 70% of rape victims, two in three Prisoners of War, 40% of people who experienced a sudden death of a loved one, and an estimated 10,000 women a year following a traumatic childbirth, according to PTSD UK.
In people who experience these events, it is common to experience upsetting, distressing or confusing feelings afterwards, reads Mind’s website. People may feel constantly distressed and may even develop emotional and physical reactions, such as feeling easily upset or not being able to sleep.
For most people, these feelings and issues will eventually subside. But in some, they will continue on, in which case you may be diagnosed with PTSD.
A recent report by NHS Digital found that, among women, the likelihood of screening positive for PTSD was high among 16 to 24 year olds (13%) and then declined with age.
Lucy Lyus, information manager for Mind, told The Huffington Post UK: “Although the data doesn’t allow us to draw any strong conclusions as to why this might be, the report’s findings that young women are also more likely to experience higher rates of common mental health problems, self-harm and bipolar disorder suggest they are facing increasing pressures in life and are at higher risk.”
The most common symptom of PTSD is ‘re-experiencing’, where a person vividly re-lives a traumatic event. This may be through flashbacks, nightmares, repetitive images or physical sensations like pain, sweating, nausea or trembling.
These feelings may even lead to people questioning whether they could have prevented the event, or even why it happened to them, leading to feelings of guilt or shame.
People with PTSD may also try to avoid being reminded of the event by deliberately steering clear of certain people or places. According to the NHS, these people will try to push memories of the event out of their mind, often distracting themselves with work or hobbies.
Others attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all, which is known as ‘emotional numbing’.
Hyperarousal, or feeling ‘on edge’, is another issue linked to PTSD which results in people struggling to relax. They may be constantly aware of threats, easily startled and prone to irritability, angry outbursts, sleeping problems and difficulty concentrating.
They may also suffer from depression, anxiety, phobias, headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches.
It is also not uncommon for people with PTSD to self-harm, take drugs or drink.
“The best way of accessing treatment is to speak to your GP, who will be able to talk you through the options available,” explained Lyus.
“If you have mild symptoms of PTSD or you have had symptoms for less than four weeks, your GP may recommend ‘watchful waiting’.
“This means monitoring your symptoms yourself to see if they get worse or if they improve. If this is the course of action your GP recommends and you feel comfortable with it, you should have a follow-up appointment within one month.”
In some cases, people with PTSD may be referred to a local practitioner, such as a psychotherapist, who has been trained in treating the condition.
“Getting professional help on the NHS can take time and waiting lists for talking treatments in particular can be long, with levels of access varying considerably depending on where you live,” said Lyus.
“You may want to consider seeing a therapist privately, but be aware that private therapists usually charge for appointments.”
In addition to ‘watchful waiting’, PTSD patients may be offered psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).
The latter is a therapy designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.
During a typical session, a client will be asked to target a particularly distressing memory. They will then be encouraged to move their eyes from left to right.
Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at PushDoctor.co.uk, previously told HuffPost UK: “In essence, it’s not all that different from other forms of psychotherapy, where the distressing event is recounted and associated with relaxation exercises to try and desensitise the body’s reaction to that distressing, or stressful, event.
“However, in this case, the relaxation exercises are replaced by rapid eye movement, which are similar to those found during the deep, dream-inducing REM sleep.
“The aim is that in recreating this experience, the effect of the traumatic event will be reduced to the point that the patient can cope with it far more easily.”
Antidepressants such as paroxetine or mirtazapine may also be used to patients.