Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a result of severe trauma. The trauma experienced is usually one that has threatened a person’s safety. PTSD is seen in people returning from fighting in a war, or people who have been victims of violence or a natural disaster.
It’s normal to feel traumatized by significant life events such as surviving a severe car accident. It becomes pathological when the feelings of trauma, anxiety, panic, or sadness don’t fade with time. People who experience PTSD may feel like they are forever changed and suffer constant panic attacks, loss of sleep and social isolation.
Trauma and prolonged stress inevitably has a negative impact on overall health. PTSD has been linked to more physician visits in veteran populations.
It should come as no surprise that being in a constant state of arousal is hard on the cardiovascular system. Stress increases heart rate and blood pressure. When common stimuli (such as a car horn or a dish dropping) elicit this response, PTSD patients often find themselves in arousal states. Studies are consistently showing that PTSD victims — and specifically war veterans — have an increased risk of dying from coronary heart disease.
The long-term effects of PTSD actually may influence lifestyle choices that in turn, negatively affect health. Feelings of depression and constant anxiety may cause PTSD sufferers to turn to illegal substances or smoking to alleviate the symptoms. They tend to smoke more than non-PTSD sufferers.
PTSD also seems to have implications for the immune system. Sufferers typically have more inflammation within the body and a higher white blood cell count which, in turn, can lead to a blood disorder or serious infection. When the body is in a constant state of fight or flight — as with PTSD — the immune system is overactive. It follows that PTSD sufferers miss more work days than those who do not suffer with PTSD. They may also see a higher risk of cancer and autoimmune disease, as well as early mortality.
One of the most effective forms of therapy for treating PTSD is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT helps the sufferer understand how certain triggers (usually thought patterns) make symptoms of PTSD worse. By understanding the disorder and the triggers, it is thought that you can prevent these feelings from spiraling out of control and ultimately making your symptoms worse.
Other types of therapies for PTSD include medication (such as antidepressants), family therapy, exposure therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). EMDR works by stimulating the brain with specific movements (like tapping a desk). It is thought that the PTSD brain “freezes” during elevated stress, and EMDR is used to “unfreeze” it. CBT often is used in conjunction with EMDR.
Whatever type of treatment you and your doctor choose, it is important to seek the treatment early. Find a therapist who specializes in trauma. More important, find someone to whom you are comfortable talking. If you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, there may be resources within your community that treat your specific type of trauma.