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Post-traumatic stress disorder

By Beth Higgins from April 2014 Issue

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition caused by experiencing and/or perceiving a traumatic event. It may be characterized by intense feelings of fear or distress, even when a person is not in danger.

There are three types of symptoms: re-experiencing, such as unwanted flashbacks or nightmares; avoidance, caused by triggers for traumatic memories, such as places or conversations; and hyperarousal, which includes sleeping difficulties, irritability, and trouble concentrating.

What can cause PTSD?
It is often associated with veterans of war, but any traumatic ordeal that terrifies or harms a person, such as a violent crime or natural disaster, may lead to PTSD. Symptoms often begin within three months of a traumatic event. Some symptoms might be immediate, while others may not occur until years later.

Are some people more susceptible to PTSD?
While anyone at any age can develop PTSD, several factors can make a person more likely to develop it. Someone who has endured major trauma and been hurt, or has seen others hurt or killed, is at risk. A lack of social support following the trauma and additional life stressors, such as the death of a loved one, can contribute to or worsen the problem.
A history of mental illness may contribute to a higher risk for PTSD, and some research indicates that genetics could be a factor, as PTSD appears to run in families. Substance abuse can also exacerbate the condition.

How is PTSD diagnosed and treated?
A psychiatrist or mental health professional can diagnose PTSD by talking with the patient to determine symptoms and duration. Treatment may include cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or drugs. Therapy involves talking with a mental health professional, either one-on-one or in a group setting. One goal is to help patients identify what triggers their symptoms. Another therapy that is often used is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to process traumatic memories.

Where can I—or a loved one—seek help for PTSD?
A primary care physician may refer you to a mental health specialist for diagnosis and treatment. Veterans can seek help at any VA Medical Center, including those in Lexington or Louisville. Kentucky's local comprehensive care centers may be able to offer assistance.


PTSD RESOURCES
• Kentucky's comprehensive care centers:
www.education.uky.edu/site/comprehensivecare

• Kentucky VA medical facilities:
www.va.gov/directory/guide (click on the state)

• For more about PTSD:
www.apa.org/topics/ptsd



BETH HIGGINS is a psychotherapist for University of Kentucky Psychiatry.