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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness triggered by trauma. It causes symptoms, like nightmares and frightening flashbacks that make it difficult for a person to function normally. Getting a professional diagnosis and going through treatment are essential for recovery. This is not a condition that will get better on its own. The main focus of treatment for PTSD is the use of trauma-focused behavioral therapy that helps patients process traumatic memories, manage negative emotions associated with trauma, and restore normal functioning.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD , is a trauma- or stress-related mental illness characterized by exposure to a traumatic experience that causes significant stress. It is one of few mental illnesses that has a definite cause—the trauma—although it is not well known why some people exposed to trauma will react this way while others do not.
PTSD is characterized by persistent symptoms that cause impairment and dysfunction in various areas of a person’s life. Symptoms may include flashbacks and nightmares, intrusive memories, negative thoughts and feelings, avoidant behaviors and hyperarousal. PTSD can be very disruptive and is not likely to get better without intervention. There are treatments available, including trauma-focused therapies and medications that can help individuals learn to overcome trauma and move past it.
Anyone from children to older adults, from all walks of life, could develop PTSD after a traumatic experience, but there are some people who are more vulnerable:1
It is not unusual for someone who has experienced or witnessed something traumatic to have symptoms characteristic of PTSD. However, it is less common for those symptoms to persist. When someone exhibits these symptoms for more than a month, it may be diagnosed as PTSD:3
One of the most effective types of therapy for people with PTSD is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).3 This is a therapy focused on realizing and changing negative thoughts and behaviors. It is action- and goal-oriented, and there are several variations of CBT that are used to help people with PTSD:
People with PTSD may also benefit from some alternative and creative types of therapy, like art therapy, drama therapy, animal therapy and therapy enhanced by psychedelic drugs. The latter is in the early stages of development, but there is strong evidence that using drugs like psilocybin or MDMA in a controlled manner and in a safe, guided process with a trained therapist can help reduce traumatic associations and symptoms of PTSD.5
Group therapy may also be useful in helping individuals relate to others and share experiences in a supportive environment. Getting family involved in therapy sessions can help loved ones learn how to better offer support and learn about PTSD. Family support is very important to managing and recovering from PTSD.
Therapies are most important for managing and treating PTSD, but some people benefit from supplementing therapy with certain medications. Antidepressants, for instance, can help individuals combat depression and anxiety while also improving sleep. Anti-anxiety medications can be used in the short-term to relieve anxiety, especially extreme episodes of anxiety. A medication called prazosin, which is not approved for PTSD, is sometimes prescribed to help reduce the incidence of nightmares.
PTSD is a difficult mental illness that causes a lot of significant dysfunction and impairment. Without treatment the symptoms can make going to work or school, keeping up with home responsibilities and maintaining healthy relationships very challenging. PTSD can also lead to other serious complications like substance abuse or suicide. This is not a condition that will improve without professional support. It is crucial to get an accurate diagnosis and to begin treatment in order to find relief from symptoms.
1U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. How Common is PTSD?