National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, Awareness Month is intended to raise public awareness about issues related to PTSD, reduce the stigma associated with PTSD, and help those suffering know where to go for help and proper treatment.
Even though PTSD treatments work, most people who have PTSD don’t get the help they need or may not even be aware that they need help. Everyone with PTSD — whether they are Veterans or civilians — needs to know that treatments really do work and can lead to a better quality of life.
Here are some frequently asked questions and answers about PTSD.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a traumatic event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with day-to-day functioning, it may be PTSD.
Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function and quality of life.
What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD symptoms can start right after or within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until many months or even years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social situations and relationships. They can also interfere with the ability to function at a job or complete normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are usually grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time and can be different for everyone.
- Intrusive memories
- Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
- Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
- Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
- Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
- Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
- Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
- Negative changes in thinking and mood
- Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
- Hopelessness about the future
- Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
- Difficulty maintaining close relationships
- Feeling detached from family and friends
- Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Changes in physical and emotional reactions
- Being easily startled or frightened
- Always being on guard for danger
- Self-destructive behavior such as drinking too much or driving too fast
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
- Overwhelming guilt or shame
For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
- Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
- Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity and worsen over time. Symptoms can appear during times of higher stress, or when someone sees a reminder of a traumatic event. For example, hearing a car backfire can trigger Veterans to relive combat experiences. Or seeing a news report about a case of physical or sexual abuse can trigger memories of an assault.
Does PTSD only impact military Veterans?
This is a common misconception and the answer is: PTSD can impact anyone, not just Veterans. Although it is important to note that members of the military do experience one of the most common PTSD-causing events during combat. The most common traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:
- Combat exposure
- Childhood physical abuse
- Sexual violence
- Physical assault
- Being threatened with a weapon
- An accident
Any traumatic event can lead to PTSD such as fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack, and any extreme, stressful experience.
Can children have PTSD?
Yes, although signs and symptoms of PTSD from childhood traumatic events may not appear until several months or even years later. For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms can show up when a child is re-enacting a traumatic event through play. Child therapists will often use play as a method to help treat symptoms of PTSD in young children. Children who experience PTSD also commonly have scary dreams or nightmares.
Can PTSD cause other health issues or complications?
Left untreated, PTSD can disrupt a job, relationships, overall health and just the enjoyment of everyday activities. Having PTSD may also increase your risk of other mental health problems, such as:
- Depression and anxiety
- Issues with drugs or alcohol use
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
When is it time to ask for help?
If you or someone you know are having disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they’re severe or becoming more severe, or if they’re impacting your day-to-day life — it’s time to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
Where can you go for help?
If someone you know, or yourself, think you may have symptoms of PTSD, help is available. A good place to start is your health plan provider — check to see what resources are available to you as part of your plan at low-cost or no additional cost.
For example, Priority Health provides members with information like what kind of help is available, what your plan will cover and how to find counselors or behavioral health care providers to meet your needs. An on-staff behavioral health team is available to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call the number on the back of your member ID card (your call is completely confidential) or log into your online account. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many counselors and therapists offering virtual behavioral health visits, so you can talk to a counselor from the comfort and safety of home. These visits are included in many health plans.
You can also try an online therapy session through a website such as 7 Cups, an online emotional health service provider. The app enables users to select listeners based on their preferences/experiences and anonymously chat via the platform 24/7. In times of emotional turmoil or stress, it is highly beneficial to talk to someone and this app offers a safe space to do that.
For Michigan residents in need of free or low-cost mental health support, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has a county map of community mental health service programs.
When to get emergency help?
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, get help right away through one or more of these resources:
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one immediately.
- Contact a minister or spiritual leader if you have a faith community.
- Call a suicide hotline number — like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
- Make an appointment with your primary care doctor or a mental health professional.
- If you know someone who’s in danger of attempting suicide or has threatened suicide, make sure someone stays with that person to keep him or her safe. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency department.
Remember that timely support after a traumatic event can prevent normal stress from getting worse and developing into PTSD. This may mean turning to family and friends who will listen. It may mean seeking out a mental health professional for a brief course of therapy. Support from others also may help prevent you from turning to unhealthy coping methods, such as alcohol or drugs.
Bottom line? If it’s getting to be too much for you or someone you care about, reach out for help.