An Overview of the Symptoms and Treatments for Post Traumatic Stress

Coping and Treatment

PTSD symptoms
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018.

Through years of research, a number of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been identified. These are symptoms that can develop following the experience of a traumatic event and are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health issues.

Symptoms

PTSD symptoms are divided into four separate clusters, including:

1. Re-experiencing 

Re-experiencing, or reliving, the traumatic event includes these symptoms:

  • Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event
  • Having recurrent nightmares
  • Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a flashback
  • Having strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event
  • Being physically responsive, such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating, when reminded of the traumatic event

2. Avoidance 

Actively avoiding people, places, or situations that remind you of the traumatic event includes these symptoms:

  • Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event
  • Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Making sure you're too busy to have time to think about the traumatic event

3. Hyperarousal

Feeling keyed up or on edge, known as hyperarousal, includes these symptoms:

  • Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling constantly on guard or like danger is lurking around every corner
  • Being jumpy or easily startled

4. Negative thoughts and beliefs

Thoughts and feelings about yourself and others may become negative and can include these symptoms:

  • Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event
  • A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities
  • Feeling distant from others
  • Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as happiness or love
  • Feeling as though your life may be cut short

Many of these symptoms are an extreme version of our body's natural response to stress. Understanding our body's natural response to threat and danger, known as the fight or flight response, can help us better understand the symptoms of PTSD.

Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with PTSD, you don't need to have all these symptoms. In fact, rarely does a person with PTSD experience all the symptoms listed above. To receive a diagnosis of PTSD, you only need a certain number of symptoms from each cluster.

Additional requirements for the diagnosis also need to be assessed, such as how you initially responded to the traumatic event, how long you've been experiencing your symptoms, and the extent to which those symptoms interfere with your life.

Coping With Symptoms

The symptoms of PTSD can be difficult to cope with, and as a result, many people with PTSD develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug abuse or deliberate self-harm. Because of these risks, it's important to develop a number of healthy coping strategies to manage your PTSD symptoms. Coping strategies you can work on incorporating in your life include:

Treatment Options

A number of psychological treatments have been found to be effective in helping people cope with the symptoms of PTSD. Some of these include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD focuses on changing the way in which you evaluate and respond to situations, thoughts, and feelings, as well as unhealthy behaviors that stem from your thoughts and feelings.
  • Exposure therapy is a behavioral treatment for PTSD that aims to reduce your fear, anxiety, and avoidance behavior by having you fully confront, or be exposed to, thoughts, feelings, or situations that you fear.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy is a behavioral treatment that is based on the idea that our suffering comes not from the experience of emotional pain, but from our attempted avoidance of that pain. Its overarching goal is to help you be open to and willing to have your inner experiences while focusing attention not on trying to escape or avoid pain, since that is impossible to do, but instead on living a meaningful life.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is another highly effective therapy for treating PTSD that involves thinking about your trauma while paying attention to an outside stimulus, such as a light or a finger moving back and forth. It helps you make new connections between your trauma and more positive thinking.

    Getting Treatment Is Important

    If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it's important that you get the help you need. Many people have recovered from PTSD through treatment. However, unaddressed symptoms of PTSD can get worse over time and may contribute to the development of other psychological disorders, such as major depression, substance use disorders, eating disorders, or anxiety disorders. Ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation or referral to someone who specializes in treating PTSD.

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