Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Originally understood as the after effects of war on certain military veterans, we now know that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can affect anyone.

PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic event or frightening experience such as sexual assault, war, natural disaster, accidents, or the threat of death to oneself or a loved one, to name a few.

Other scenarios which also create trauma can be repeat stressful events; such as domestic violence, bullying, or any psychologically or emotionally negative affecting repeated events in one’s life. 

PTSD is a long-lasting consequence of incredibly traumatic events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with everyday life.

Most people who have been exposed to traumatic events will develop feelings of anger, shock, fear, guilt, and anxiety. These are completely normal reactions to an unnatural event and will fade over time.

A person who has PTSD develops unusually strong feelings after such an event that they prevent an individual from living a purposeful life. Unfortunately, the symptoms of PTSD do not fade over time, these feelings intensify until the person is overwhelmed and unable to function.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop at any age, even during the first year of life. Symptoms most often begin to appear within the first three months following the incident but can present months or years later.

Certain individuals exposed to a disturbing experience may develop symptoms directly after experiencing the event, called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). People who have ASD experience a varying presentation and duration of symptoms, but most recover within three months of the event. Some people who have ASD experience longer periods of symptoms that can be triggered by memories of the trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can impact every area of a person’s life, but with comprehensive management and support, this disorder can be treated.

Studies show that trauma causes changes to the brain, but the extent to which trauma affects the body in the long term is still being explored.

Physical Response to Trauma

Children commonly experience physical symptoms as a result of trauma and may include fainting, stomach ache, headaches, muscle aches, and constipation.

Adults often seek treatment for non-specific symptoms in children without being aware of any psychological trauma that has occurred. Likewise, adults who experience trauma are prone to developing physical symptoms. These symptoms result in more frequent doctor visits and missed work than in individuals without PTSD.

When the brain perceives a threat, the adrenal glands flood the body with adrenaline and cortisol. This is the body’s “fight-or-flight” response.

Experts believe that the brain becomes trained over time to maintain its fight-or-flight response and that persistent states of hyper-arousal or dissociation may lead to permanent neurological changes.

Cortisol regulates the immune system, blood sugar, and depression, and is thought to be connected to some of the long-term changes that the body undergoes in times of overwhelming stress.

Research shows that combat veterans with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus, the region of the brain that controls learning and short-term memory, than those without.

Health Risks

Adults who experienced childhood trauma are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours. These behaviours, though harmful, are often used as tools for coping in the short-term.

Common health risks include alcohol or drug abuse, smoking, promiscuity, and obesity. Self-medicating with these behaviours can contribute to undesirable outcomes such as STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and heart and lung disease.

Other Risk Factors

The impact of trauma on the individual is based on a number of factors. Psychological trauma can result from one traumatic event (acute) or from repeated stress (chronic).

Acute trauma may occur from an assault, accident, or natural disaster. Chronic trauma occurs in individuals who are abused over an extended period of time or are exposed to war.

Those who experience chronic trauma are more likely to suffer a greater total negative impact due to the reinforcing nature of subsequent traumatic events.

Other factors that influence an individual’s response to trauma include gender, the severity of the event, the existence of a support system, and early intervention. Researchers also believe that personality or physiological differences may impact the severity of the trauma response.

Physical Effects

Trauma is associated with many chronic conditions and diseases. These include:

  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Dementia
  • High blood pressure
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Other chronic pain conditions

There is clearly an association between chronic conditions and PTSD. One study found that combat veterans with PTSD were two to three times as likely to develop heart disease as those without and were in poorer overall health despite controlling for combat injuries.

Higher risk for diseases might be attributed to the presence of secondary health risk factors such as smoking or obesity.

However, studies have begun to link some conditions to trauma in the absence of other risk factors. For example, heart disease is more prevalent in survivors of childhood trauma despite controlling for other health risks. Researchers are moving towards determining whether trauma is also linked with premature death.

Looking to the Future

There is still much to learn about the physical changes that occur in the body as a result of stress. For example, researchers know that the hippocampus is smaller in those who have had PTSD, but do not yet know if this can be reversed through medical or cognitive therapy.

Likewise, the mechanism that makes those with PTSD more likely to develop heart disease is not yet known. Researchers continue to explore, and studies being conducted now will hopefully contribute to better trauma responses in the future. If you feel like you would like to talk to someone about your PTSD and how to manage it more effectively, call me for chat today.