Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder | Symptoms| MedStar Health
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Trauma is often associated with physical injuries, but psychological trauma is an emotionally painful, shocking, stressful, and sometimes life-threatening experience. Trauma is a common experience for many adults and children. Traumatic events can include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, community-based violence, disaster, terrorism, and war.

Traumatic events often threaten our sense of safety. Although many people who experience a traumatic event will go on with their lives without lasting symptoms, others may have difficulty and experience traumatic stress reactions. Responses to trauma can be immediate or delayed and often differ in severity and cover a wide range of behaviors and reactions. Trauma and stress-related disorders are closely linked to anxiety disorders.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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What are the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious, potentially debilitating condition that can occur after people have experienced or witnessed a life-threatening event, such as a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, rape, or other violent personal assault. Extreme anxiety and trauma-related fear are characteristic of PTSD. Other symptoms include:

  • Re-experiencing a traumatic event through intrusive distressing recollections, flashbacks and nightmares
  • Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma
  • Feeling cut off from others and other negative alterations in mood or ways of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering
  • Marked changes in arousal and reactivity, including difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, easily irritated, and angered

PTSD symptoms can begin shortly after a traumatic event, or may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms can interfere with daily tasks or cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. Some people may experience PTSD simultaneously with anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorders.

PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. Getting effective treatment after symptoms develop can be critical in reducing symptoms and improving overall daily function.

If you or a loved one is experiencing disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event that persists for more than a month, or if you’re having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor or a behavioral health specialist. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent symptoms from worsening.

What are the risk factors for trauma disorders?

People of all ages can develop PTSD; however, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event:

  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as a childhood abuse
  • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
  • Having other mental or behavioral health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Having difficulty with substance use or misuse, including alcohol or other drugs
  • Lacking a support system of family and/or friends
  • Having a family history or mental or behavioral health conditions

What are the treatments for PTSD?

Treatment can help individuals regain a sense of control over their lives. Most people who receive treatment for PTSD see significant improvement and enjoy a better quality of life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may require short and long-term treatment. Various therapy modalities and, in some cases, medication are used to manage and treat symptoms. Often medication is prescribed in addition to individual therapy.

If you're suffering from PTSD, know that treatment can help you get your life back.

How is therapy used to treat PTSD?

Several types of therapy may teach skills and techniques to better manage or cope with stress. Therapy can help individuals understand specific causes and triggers of PTSD symptoms. This awareness will help your therapist identify strategies to help patients return to activities or situations they previously avoided.

Individual therapy sessions are conducted by a licensed specialist. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most common methods used by therapists and counselors. CBT specifically targets a person's thoughts and physical symptoms, including avoidance.

For individuals with PTSD, exposure therapy may also be beneficial. Exposure therapy involves the gradual exposure to the object, place, or situation that triggers anxiety. The gradual exposure promotes confidence and helps individuals manage the situation and symptoms of fear, anxiety, or panic.

Which medications are prescribed to treat PTSD?

A young woman reads a prescription bottle.For some individuals, medication may help manage PTSD symptoms. Depending on a person's symptoms, many of the same medications used to treat anxiety disorders or depression may be prescribed.

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): These drugs are considered safer and generally cause fewer side effects than other types of antidepressants. These are some of the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. SSRIs include citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), sertraline (Zoloft), and vilazodone (Viibryd).

  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs): These are among the newer types of antidepressants. Examples include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR), desvenlafaxine (Pristiq, Khedezla), and levomilnacipran (Fetzima).

  • Buspirone: An anti-anxiety medication that may be used on an ongoing basis. It typically takes up to a several weeks to become fully effective.

  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs): MAOIs are typically prescribed when other drugs haven’t worked, because they have serious side effects and require a strict diet. Examples include tranylcypromine (Parnate), phenelzine (Nardil), and isocarboxazid (Marplan).

What are the risks of abruptly stopping medication?

If your doctor has prescribed a medication for treatment of PTSD, it’s crucial you take the medication as directed. Do not stop taking the medication without first consulting your physician. Abruptly stopping your medication could suddenly worsen your symptoms or cause other side effects.

If you feel like your medication is doing more harm than good or if you’re experiencing negative side effects, talk to your doctor. He or she can work with you to safely change your medication.

Are antidepressants safe during pregnancy?

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, tell your doctor before starting an antidepressant. Some antidepressants may pose a risk to your child. If you’re taking an antidepressant and become pregnant or plan to become pregnant, talk with your doctor.

What are the side effects of antidepressants?

Most antidepressants are safe, however the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all antidepressants to carry a black box warning, the strictest warning for prescriptions.

In some cases, patients, especially children, teenagers, and adults under 25, may have an increase in suicidal thoughts immediately after starting an antidepressant or changing the dose.Typically, suicidal thoughts will subside as the body adjusts to the medication. Keep in mind that antidepressants are more likely to reduce suicide risk long term.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts while taking an antidepressant, please seek help. You can contact your doctor or emergency help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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