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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Reliving Trauma

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, accidents, or military combat.

Among those who may experience PTSD are military troops who served in Vietnam and the Gulf Wars; rescue workers Image of an artistic representation of trauma involved in the aftermath of disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing; survivors of accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes; immigrants fleeing violence in their countries; survivors of the 1994 California earthquake, the 1997 South Dakota floods, and hurricanes Hugo and Andrew; and people who witness traumatic events. Family members of victims also can develop the disorder. PTSD can occur in people of any age, including children and adolescents.

Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. Anniversaries of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also experience emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common. Most people with PTSD try to avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than 1 month.

Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, immune system problems, dizziness, chest pain, or discomfort in other parts of the body are common in people with PTSD. Often, doctors treat these symptoms without being aware that they stem from an anxiety disorder.

Facts About PTSD

  • An estimated 5.2 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or approximately 3.6 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have PTSD. 1
  • About 30 percent of Vietnam veterans developed PTSD at some point after the war. 2 The disorder also has been detected among veterans of the Persian Gulf War, with some estimates running as high as 8 percent. 3
  • More than twice as many women as men experience PTSD following exposure to trauma. 4
  • Depression, alcohol or other substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with PTSD. 5 The likelihood of treatment success is increased when these other conditions are appropriately diagnosed and treated as well.

Treatments for PTSD

PTSD can be extremely debilitating. Fortunately, research—including studies supported by NIMH and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—has led to the development of treatments to help people with PTSD.

Studies have demonstrated the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral therapy, group therapy, and exposure therapy, in which the person repeatedly re-lives the frightening experience under controlled conditions to help him or her work through the trauma. 6,7 Studies also have found that several types of medication, particularly the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other antidepressants, can help relieve the symptoms of PTSD. 8

Other research shows that debriefing people very soon after a catastrophic event may reduce some of the symptoms of PTSD. A study of 12,000 schoolchildren who lived through a hurricane in Hawaii found that those who got counseling early on were doing much better 2 years later than those who did not. 9

Research Findings

Research is continuing to reveal factors that may lead to PTSD. People who have been abused as children or who have had other previous traumatic experiences are more likely to develop the disorder. 10 In addition, it used to be believed that people who tend to be emotionally numb after a trauma were showing a healthy response, but now some researchers suspect that people who experience this emotional distancing may be more prone to PTSD. 11

Studies in animals and humans have focused on pinpointing the specific brain areas and circuits involved in anxiety and fear, which underlie anxiety disorders such as PTSD. 12 Fear, an emotion that evolved to deal with danger, causes an automatic, rapid protective response that occurs without the need for conscious thought. It has been found that the body's fear response is coordinated by a small structure deep inside the brain, called the amygdala.

The amygdala, although relatively small, is a very complicated structure, and recent research suggests that different anxiety disorders may be associated with abnormal activation of the amygdala. One aim of research is to use such basic knowledge to develop new therapies.

People with PTSD tend to have abnormal levels of key hormones involved in response to stress. 13 Some studies have shown that cortisol levels are lower than normal and epinephrine and norepinephrine are higher than normal.

When people are in danger, they produce high levels of natural opiates, which can temporarily mask pain. Scientists have found that people with PTSD continue to produce those higher levels even after the danger has passed; this may lead to the blunted emotions associated with the condition.

Research to understand the neurotransmitter system involved in memories of emotionally charged events may lead to discovery of drugs that, if given early, could block the development of PTSD symptoms.


References

1 Narrow WE, Rae DS, Regier DA. NIMH epidemiology note: prevalence of anxiety disorders. One-year prevalence best estimates calculated from ECA and NCS data. Population estimates based on U.S. Census estimated residential population age 18 to 54 on July 1, 1998. Unpublished.

2 Kulka RA, Schlenger WE, Fairbank JA, et al. Contractual report of findings from the National Vietnam veterans readjustment study. Research Triangle Park, NC: Research Triangle Institute, 1988.

3 Wolfe J, Erickson DJ, Sharkansky EJ, et al. Course and predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder among Gulf War veterans: a prospective analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1999; 67(4): 520-8.

4 Davidson JR. Trauma: the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2000; 14(2 Suppl 1): S5-S12.

5 Breslau N, Davis GC, Andreski P, et al. Traumatic events and postraumatic stress disorder in an urban population of young adults. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1991; 48(3): 216-22.

6 Marks I, Lovell K, Noshirvani H, et al. Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder by exposure and/or cognitive restructuring: a controlled study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1998; 55(4): 317-25.

7 Lubin H, Loris M, Burt J, et al. Efficacy of psychoeducational group therapy in reducing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder among multiply traumatized women. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1998; 155(9): 1172-7.

8 Kent JM, Coplan JD, Gorman JM. Clinical utility of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in the spectrum of anxiety. Biological Psychiatry, 1998; 44(9): 812-24.

9 Chemtob CM, Tomas S, Law W, et al. Postdisaster psychosocial intervention: a field study of the impact of debriefing on psychological distress. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1997; 154(3): 415-7.

10 Widom CS. Posttraumatic stress disorder in abused and neglected children grown up. American Journal of Psychiatry, 1999; 156(8): 1223-9.

11 Feeny NC, Zoellner LA, Fitzgibbons LA, et al. Exploring the roles of emotional numbing, depression, and dissociation in PTSD. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2000; 13(3): 489-98.

12 LeDoux J. Fear and the brain: where have we been, and where are we going? Biological Psychiatry, 1998; 44(12): 1229-38.

13 Yehuda R. Psychoneuroendocrinology of post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 1998; 21(2): 359-79.

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