Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day is Thursday, June 27th. Millions of children and adults across the United States suffer from the effects of PTSD, and evidence suggests that over seven million adults suffer from the disorder each year. As these numbers continue to rise, both government and mental health professionals pursue ways to control the growing epidemic.

Many people associate PTSD with a soldier who has been traumatized in war, but in the United States 60% of men and 50% of women have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime, and, of those who do, about 8% of men and 20% of women will develop the disorder. PTSD can occur after someone goes through, sees, or learns about a traumatic event like combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attack, sexual/physical assault, serious accident, or natural disaster. All of these experiences share the common factor that they threaten the physical integrity of the person experiencing them.

Recent studies also show that individuals living with a person afflicted with PTSD can mirror the individual’s behaviors. In the Mother Jones article “Is PTSD Contagious”, author Mac McClelland documents the lives of several veterans and their spouses and children who also suffer from PTSD. It’s an interesting look at the wide reaching effects of the disorder and the serious impacts that it has on immediate family and friends.

To understand PTSD further it is important to be aware of the symptoms as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Diagnostic Disorders. An individual may…

  • Respond to situations with intense fear, helplessness, or horror (in kids this can be disorganized or agitated behavior).
  • Persistently re-experience the traumatic event with recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections with images, thoughts or perceptions; recurrent distressing dreams; acting or feeling as if the event were recurring with illusions and flashbacks; and experience intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble the traumatic event.
  • Avoid stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness by avoiding thoughts, feelings or conversations about the trauma; avoiding activities, places or people that arouse recollections of the trauma; inability to recall important aspects of the trauma; markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities; have feelings of detachment or estrangement from others; unable to have loving feelings; and have a sense of a foreshortened future.
  • Have persistent symptoms of increased arousal that were not present before the trauma indicated by difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability or outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; and hypervigilance exhibited in an exaggerated startle response to situations.

People with PTSD may feel hopelessness, shame, or despair. Employment and relationship problems are also common. Depression, anxiety, and alcohol or drug use often occur at the same time as PTSD.

Though controversial, some mental health professionals also believe that PTSD can affect a person in an unexpected traumatic experience such as infidelity. According to an article on Divorce360, a spouse can experience PTSD upon learning that a partner has been unfaithful. “The discovery of infidelity is devastating because it shatters basic assumptions about the security we expect in committed relationships,” said Dr. Shirley Glass. Dr. Glass, who was known as “the godmother of infidelity research,” compared the emotional shock of discovery of an affair to the trauma experienced by those who have gone through horrific events. She made an impact among marriage therapists by saying that betrayed partners in adulterous affairs often suffered from posttraumatic stress similar to that experienced by combat veterans.

Dr. Don-David Lusterman, author of “Infidelity: A Survivor’s Guide,” agrees. “The discoverer is profoundly traumatized,” said Dr. Lusterman in a phone interview with Divorce360. “It really is a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your marriage is very important to you and if you really believe the contract of monogamy still applies, it’s a terrible shock because your whole life is tied up in your marriage.”

The shock of betrayal has a profound effect on a person’s physical and emotional health. Researchers at the University of Oregon found, “Exposure to traumas with high betrayal was significantly correlated with a number of physical illness, anxiety, dissociation, and depression symptoms.”

Currently, initiatives like the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) are part of a new Presidential focus aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. It supports the concept of brain mapping as a means to diagnose, treat, and possibly reverse the affects of PTSD. According to the National Institute of Health, “Long desired by researchers seeking new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders, brain mapping will fill major gaps in our current knowledge and provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.” Realizing that PTSD is not only a disorder associated with individuals who have served in the military, this new science may be a giant step in helping individuals suffering from the disorder.

Charles Marmar, a New York University professor on the team of the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, the most comprehensive study of combat stress ever conducted, lists the broad array of affects that PTSD can have on people. These include personal tragedy, suicide, depression, alcohol and drug use, reliving terror, and stress-related health problems including cardiovascular, immunologic, heart attacks, stroke and dementia. According to Marmar, the treatment and compensation disability programs related to PTSD are probably in the tens of billions.

It’s apparent that no matter the traumatic event you have witnessed or experienced, seeking professional help is your first step to recovery. Today we are armed with appropriate treatment approaches and new research to help the untreated and raise awareness of PTSD.

It is important that you seek help if you are experiencing several of the symptoms mentioned above. Only a qualified mental health practitioner, such as a psychologist, can diagnose PTSD and it’s important that you get help so that the cycle of pain and suffering does not affect you and your family in the long-term.