Today is PTSD National Awareness Day and a good time to talk what PTSD is and to discuss some of the misconceptions that surround this painful emotional disorder. This topic is especially poignant in light of the recent attention child sexual abuse has received from celebrity disclosures and high profile court trials. Everyone should take a deep breath while we have a calm discussion about this difficult subject. We also have some useful tips to help tell the difference between normal adjustment reactions and more serious conditions which may need a professional assessment.

What is PTSD?

Post traumatic stress disorder is a term used to refer to cluster of emotional and behavioral symptoms which are A) connected to a severe life trauma experienced or witnessed, e.g. imminent threat or harm to self or others and B) interpreted by the individual with horror, helplessness and hopelessness. The four main aspects of the symptoms involve:

1. Intrusive Re-experience/Recollection disturbing dreams or flashbacks regarding the trauma. The experience of reliving the trauma especially when triggered by toxic stimuli that symbolically or literally represent the event(s), e.g. sounds, smells, songs or words that have some unpleasant association with the traumatic event.

2. Emotional Numbing expressed as an inability to feel anything related to or inability to remember details or even the occurrence of the traumatic event(s). Social and emotional detachment and even hallucinations and dissociation.

3. Avoidance of thoughts, discussion, persons and activities associated with traumatic event(s) as well as a general withdrawal from regular or pleasurable activities including sex.

4. Hyper or exaggerated arousal or agitation which involves a sleep disturbance, irritability, anger outbursts, difficulty concentrating and exaggerated startle responses. BTW, hyper arousal don’t mean sexually excited. It means having a hair trigger.

These symptoms must be present for more than one month and be noticeable by others and are usually accompanied with a marked diminishment of work performance or overall functioning level.

Common Myths

Myth 1. Everyone who is exposed to serious trauma will develop PTSD.

Fact: Not everyone does. The reason that some folks do and some don’t is a very complex interaction of many factors. Most folks may experience a temporary adjustment reaction that may have some of the PTSD symptoms but is temporary.

Myth 2. Only Soldiers or people who have been sexually abused can get PTSD. Robbery, auto accidents, and other traumas can lead to this problem.

Fact: Anyone exposed to severe trauma, and the range of traumatic experience is not limited to violence, can develop PTSD symptoms, even children.

Myth 3. People with PTSD are crazy or mentally ill.

Fact: Folks who develop PTSD are normal people who have been exposed to intolerable circumstances which override one’s resources to respond reasonably. New studies show that intense trauma rewires the brain’s neuro-pathways to respond to the smallest stimulus as though it were a life threatening crisis.

Myth 4. Talking about the past only makes it worse.

Fact: Studies by the DOD have shown amazing results from cognitive talk, along with medication therapies, which can re-wire neuro-pathways back to normal responses.

Myth 5. Time cures all wounds.

Fact: Left untreated, PTSD can worsen and become a disabling condition.

How do I know if someone needs professional help?

Here are some things to consider if you’re wondering about whether professional help should be sought:

1. Severity of the trauma (duration and intensity)

2. Duration of symptoms.

3. Impairment of functioning at work, in relationships and leisure.

4. Unresponsiveness to attempts to alleviate symptoms.

As with any life problem, talking things over with a partner or trusted friend is a good way to put one’s concerns into a reasonable perspective. If there are still questions, Syracuse has many qualified professionals who can help you.

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