Causes Of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a severe health condition brought on by a traumatic or terrifying event that can occur at any point in someone’s life. It can also occur after prolonged traumatic experience. The event that triggers the symptoms can be any traumatic experience, such as a serious accident, war, an unexpected and severe injury or the sudden death of a loved one.
Someone suffering from PTSD might experience trauma disorder symptoms such as flashbacks, angry outbursts severe anxiety and wide range of other physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. Women are twice as likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder as men, and children can also develop it. PTSD often occurs with depression, substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders.
This is not to be confused with adjustment disorder, in which a person experiences symptoms for only a brief period of time. Symptoms of PTSD usually show up within a month of a traumatic experience but can occur later. When someone has experienced traumatic events may not develop symptoms until years after the event. This is referred to as Complex PTSD and involves similar symptoms. If a child experiences neglect or violence at a young age, they may develop complex PTSD years later.
PTSD was first documented during World War I when soldiers experienced shell shock after living in the trenches. The condition was finally recognized as a serious mental health condition in 1980 and now, new methods seem to hold a lot of promise for those living with PTSD that hope to improve their lives.
Who Is Affected?
Anyone can be affected by PTSD and their risk of developing PTSD depends on a number of factors. It’s important to remember that there is no correct way to deal with a trauma disorder and everyone adjusts at their own speed. The majority of people that experience a traumatic event completely recover without any lingering conditions, but people suffering from PTSD can experience sadness, anxiety and depression for months and even years after a terrifying event. People who experience PTSD may also experience acute stress disorder or adjustment disorder.
Our experiences up until the point of the event partly determine how we will react to a traumatic situation. Our personality and our biology also determine how each of us reacts to traumatic instances. People that have experienced depression or anxiety in the past have a greater chance of developing PTSD after a distressing event. It isn’t completely understood yet why certain people develop PTSD and not others but there are a number of things that we can do to try to prepare ourselves, as best we can, for the unexpected:
There are two main types of bipolar disorder. Type I is characterized by manic or mixed episodes, followed by a major depressive episode. Type II is distinguished by major depressive episodes followed by a manic episode. Type I is considered to be the more severe of the two, as any prolonged period of mania can lead to dangerous and potentially life-threatening behavior for the sufferer as well as for their families and loved ones.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms
There are a number of symptoms associated with PTSD and when left untreated can begin to hamper our daily activities. Symptoms can vary greatly but there are some common conditions related to PTSD.
Avoidance is a common reaction that people living with PTSD experience. This means that the person avoids places, people and activities that remind them of their trauma. This may cause them to stop doing the things they enjoy. Avoidance is tricky, because it is the opposite of what many experts believe may help begin recovery–communication.
One of the most typical symptoms reported by people with PTSD is replaying a traumatic event over in their mind sometimes vividly re-experiencing the situation. Re-experiencing has become a frequently used term to describe these flashbacks and includes nightmares, distressing images and physical sensations such as sweating, pain and nausea.
Constantly On Edge (Hyperarousal)
People living with PTSD often report feeling like they are always stressed out, on high alert, or on edge. This hyper alertness can eventually lead to other problems such as insomnia, irritability, and difficulty focusing. This symptom may be caused by a number of factors including changes in the brain and our natural survival response.
Potential Causes Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Sometimes we can’t shake the guilt or shame that we associate with a past event. This can contribute to distressing and repetitive thoughts that keep us from living our lives and moving on from event. These feelings might be the main cause of some of our symptoms, such as sleepless nights. Addressing the cause of these feelings through methods such as psychotherapy might allow for a faster recovery and healthier life.
Studies have shown that people with PTSD have abnormal levels of stress hormones. These are hormones that are normally produced in the the body during dangerous situations. Those suffering from PTSD seem to show high levels of the fight or flight hormones that enable us to respond to threats at all times rather than solely in a stressful environment. This likely contributes to the symptoms experienced during PTSD.
Experts suggest that PTSD might be the result of an innate human survival mechanism. After all, we are not so far removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. After going through something devastating, it’s as if the brain goes on high alert, in order to prevent any further harm–this often leads to negative consequences such as trouble sleeping.
Some research has shown that PTSD has occurred as a result of a traumatic brain injury in military personnel. (Research Traces Link Between Combat Blasts and PTSD) Unfortunately, members of the military suffer from PTSD for a number of reasons excluding brain injuries, but this might have implications as far as how head injuries can cause PTSD.
PTSD In The Brain
It is not always easy to treat PTSD and the symptoms associated with the disorder, but researchers have associated some changes in specific areas in the brain with PTSD. That makes brain imaging another useful way in diagnosing PTSD. Understanding how these areas of the brain are associated with PTSD can help develop effective treatment techniques.
One of the main parts of the brain that is affected by PTSD is the amygdala. This part of the brain is connected to our emotions and fears and becomes more active during stressful situations. That means when someone is suffering from PTSD, they are living in this heightened state of stress all the time–even when they sleep.
There is another area of the brain that is commonly related to PTSD and it’s called the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex or vmPFC. This area of the brain is associated with our decision making process and shows to been less active in people with PTSD. With all of this in mind, there are signs pointing to an inability for the brain to connect fear with contexts ie: you hear a loud noise in a crowd but don’t access the cause and immediately engage a fight or flight response.
When considering the impact of this disorder on our brains, we can’t forget about the all important hippocampus. This area of the brain is in charge of memory as well some emotional functions and when it isn’t functioning properly, it may prevent people with PTSD from properly processing flashbacks and memories. While changes in the hippocampus can be analyzed as a symptom of PTSD, changes in this area may also contribute to the cause of the disorder. People with PTSD tend to have a smaller hippocampus but amazingly, there are ways to grow your hippocampus! One of the most effective ways to increase connections in this area is to pump some iron, go for a run or choose any other physical activity. People that exercise regularly prove to have big and healthy brains so don’t forget that healthy gains means healthy brains!
Experiencing sad and negative thoughts after a traumatic experience is natural and they may last for a long time, but most people recover after a few weeks. It is important that you seek help from a your health professional if you feel like you might be suffering from trauma related symptoms. Playing it on the safe side can’t hurt and dealing with symptoms early might be what prevents them from contributing to a disorder.
One helpful practice that might help you and your doctor treat the underlying cause of PTSD, is recording your symptoms and sleep patterns; when symptoms occur and what might have acted as the trigger. Being able to provide your doctor with a detailed timeline of your experience will help them decide the most effective treatment for you; not to mention give you the confidence that you have some control over your health.
Your doctor will likely decide how to begin treatment based on how severe your symptoms are. After someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event, there are steps that they can take to prevent trauma from becoming a disorder. Some of these strategies include therapy, meditation and mindfulness, and developing a strong support system through meaningful relationships.
Get Better Sleep
Part of an evaluation from a mental health professional would likely include examining sleep patterns and dreams. Some people living with PTSD report waking up in the middle of the night after a nightmare, sometimes replaying a traumatic event. Some research suggests that close to 80% of people suffering from PTSD have nightmares in which a traumatic instance plays out. When sleep patterns of those living with PTSD were examined, researchers found that they were sleeping much less than usual and they were not getting good sleep.
One of the common symptoms of PTSD is insomnia, which only adds insult to injury. Whether you can’t fall asleep, you wake up and can’t go back to sleep, or you don’t get a wink of shut-eye all night, this is a common reaction to a terrible event and one that can create a vicious cycle if left unmanaged. After all, sleep plays a titanic role in our overall health and recovery. And while you might be thinking you’ll never sleep again, there is hope and options for those lacking sleep.
One can only imagine what it would be like to experience such terrible nightmares–recurring nightmares and sleepless nights might start to affect your life, but there are methods to improve sleep and dreaming. Most medical practitioners will start with psychotherapy with the hope that sleep and dreaming will improve as the disorder improves. In some cases, nightmares might last even after the person feels like they’ve kicked they’ve progressed beyond other conditions in their trauma disorder–even then, there are interesting options to explore. Sleep is so important, it is hard to say whether any option should be excluded.
Image Rehearsal Therapy is like psychotherapy in that a person reviews their dream with a therapist. They write the details of their dream down as they recall it and then with the support of the therapist, try to reframe their perspective of the dream and take a more positive view of the dream. After the individual comes up with a new perspective and view of their dream, they rehearse it in their mind with the hope that this idea will take priority in their mind–an inventive way to treat bad dreams, but it has been shown to help.
Prazosin has sometimes been prescribed to help treat PTSD related symptoms and in particular nightmares. Like other alpha blockers, Prazosin relaxes muscles and improves blood pressure and flow. Although it has been prescribed to help people dealing with PTSD-related nightmares, there is still some research needed to decide how effective this drug really is.
Another innovative and interesting treatment that is gaining more attention is the use of MDMA to help people with PTSD. Clubgoers might know this drug as a girl’s name but “Molly” has been recognized by the Federal Drug Administration, who referred to it as a “breakthrough therapy.” The FDA recently supported new studies to determine whether the drug might benefit people suffering from PTSD. MDMA is known to decrease activity in the brain associated with fear while increasing activity associated with processing memories; this might provide a way for people to confront their traumatic memories and reconsider them with less fear. It’s often hard for people that have been involved in or witnessed a traumatic event to talk about it, which makes recovery that much more difficult. Many researchers see promise in MDMA after patients reporting feeling more comfortable discussing they way they feel and their experiences.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy might be used to help a person recognize what occurrence might have caused the trauma disorder and reconsider the way they think about the event. Therapy and some practice that includes mindfulness, such as mediation, have all be shown to be successful in re-training the brain’s response to trauma. Both therapy and meditation have also been shown to strengthen the connections between brain regions improving brain function. Other types of therapy such as group therapy has been effective for some people in improving their health and lives. The importance of some type of support system cannot be overstated, whether it’s a group of people facing the same things as you, your family or friends.
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