Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Author: 
Adoptive Families Association of BC
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Definition
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal.

Causes
The traumatic events that can produce PTSD can be divided onto three categories:

  • Natural disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires
  • Accidental human-made disasters: auto crashes, airplane crashes, industrial accidents
  • Intentional human-made disasters: war/military combat, terrorism bombings, rape, assault, armed robbery, multiple forms of verbal, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse such as domestic battering and violence in schools

Characteristics
PTSD can develop at any age, including in childhood. Symptoms typically begin within three months of a traumatic event, although occasionally they do not begin until years later. Once PTSD occurs, the severity and duration of the illness varies.  PTSD's syndrome fall into three categories:

  • Intrusion: In people with PTSD, memories of the trauma reoccur unexpectedly, and episodes called "flashbacks" intrude into their present-day lives. These flashbacks may be so strong that individuals feel they are actually experiencing the trauma again or seeing it unfold before their eyes and in nightmares.
  • Avoidance: Avoidance symptoms affect relationships with others. A person with avoidance symptoms often avoids close emotional ties with family, colleagues, and friends. At first, the person feels numb, has diminished emotions, and can complete only routine, mechanical activities. Later, when re-experiencing the event, the individual may alternate between the flood of emotions caused by re-experiencing and the inability to feel or express emotions at all. This person avoids situations or activities that are reminders of the original traumatic event because such exposure may cause symptoms to worsen. The inability of people with PTSD to work out grief and anger over injury or loss during the traumatic events means the trauma can continue to affect their behaviour without their being aware of it.
  • Hyperarousal: PTSD can cause those who have it to act as if they are constantly threatened by the trauma that caused their illness. They can become suddenly irritable or explosive, even they are not provoked. They may have trouble concentrating or remembering current information, and, because of their nightmares, they may develop insomnia.

Treatment
Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have good success in treating effects of PTSD.  These professionals use a variety of treatment methods:

  • Behaviour therapy
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy
  • Family therapy
  • Discussion groups
  • Medication

Complications
Having post-traumatic stress disorder may place a person at a higher risk of:

  • Drug, alcohol abuse (many people attempt to rid themselves of their painful re-experience by abusing drugs -- self-medicating -- to help them to blunt their pain and forget the trauma temporarily)
  • Depression (a common product of this inability to resolve painful feelings; some people feel guilty because they survived a disaster while others did not)
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide
  • Divorce

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.