Understanding PTSD: Common Symptoms and Breakthrough Treatments

Understanding PTSD: Common Symptoms and Breakthrough Treatments

This mental health condition is on the rise but so are new treatments to help combat its symptoms.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can be caused by a constellation of circumstances—some affecting millions of folks at once, like 9-11, and others affecting one person, such as in cases of sexual assault, bullying or physical trauma from a sports-related injury or car accident. PTSD is commonly diagnosed in victims of gun violence, combat veterans and first responders, but PTSD can happen to anyone.

Researchers at the National Center for PTSD estimate that 7 or 8 out of every 100 Americans will have PTSD at some point in their lives and 8 million adults will have PTSD during any given year. Among veterans, the numbers are much higher: We know around 11 to 20 percent of those who served in Iraq developed PTSD; in Vietnam, the rate hit about 30 percent.

Today, we have more than 1.3 million active service men and women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines with Special Operations forces deployed in more than 145 countries, according to The Nation and Stars and Stripes. While 31 service members died in actions overseas in the first 11 months of 2017, according to Defense Department data, 20 vets a day commit suicide—often a result of untreated PTSD.

As of fall 2018, the most talked-about cause of PTSD is from taking children away from their parents at US border crossings. The reason many of these families are here is because they’re fleeing extreme violence in Central American countries like San Salvador and Honduras. There’s a good chance that the resulting PTSD from the trauma may accompany them for years and result in many behavioral problems, ranging from depression, anxiety and drug abuse to rage and violence. Parents can experience similar behavioral changes.

No matter the trigger, symptoms of PTSD may include sleep problems; becoming quick to anger and other intense emotional outbreaks; flashbacks; recurring upsetting memories; and thoughts of suicide.

Treatment with a trained therapist will help you open up about your experience and may also include instruction in meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai chi and acupuncture. A good therapist will also use some of the newer therapies, including virtual reality exposure and wise use of medications to temporarily treat anxiety and depression. If you cannot get to a therapy session in person, explore telemedicine (the Department of Veterans Affairs—VA—is doing a lot of this) and Internet-delivered cognitive behavioral treatment (iCBT) for PTSD.

From agony to ecstasy
There soon may be a new medical treatment for PTSD that promises to be quite effective. The results of a Phase II clinical trial are in and it seems that MDMA (otherwise known as Molly and ecstasy) with adjunctive psychotherapy in a controlled setting may be somewhat effective and well-tolerated in reducing PTSD symptoms in veterans and first responders. A 12-month follow-up found sustaining benefits.

More information will become available over the coming months. But for now, if you’re suffering the effects of PTSD, see a therapist. And if someone you know has PTSD, offer support and understanding. Suggest he or she check out online resources at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

And let’s not be a country that creates PTSD in children—and their parents. The Statue of Liberty harbors the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Breathing free—that’s the dream of everyone who has to contend with PTSD.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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