Following recent traumatic events, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and other tragedies in the United States and around the world, it is imperative to address the importance of early recognition and treatment of acute and posttraumatic stress disorders.
Acute stress disorder (ASD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may arise after direct exposure to a traumatic event, actual or threatened death of a family member or close friend, or repeated exposure to details about a traumatic event (1). Symptoms of ASD and PTSD are fairly similar and the distinction is largely based on the time frame to the beginning and duration of symptoms. Symptoms related to ASD last up to four weeks and must arise within one month of exposure to the traumatic event. In PTSD, the duration of symptoms is beyond 30 days. While your repeated exposure to details of a traumatic event from media coverage is not considered a cause of ASD and PTSD, the impact of graphic and violent images may affect people in different ways and may lead to temporary mood changes or worsen any pre-existing depressive or anxiety disorders.
The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the United States adult population is estimated to be 6.8% (2). Women may be up to three times more likely to develop PTSD than men. Risk factors to develop PTSD, in addition to exposure to a traumatic event, include: being a female, having other mental illnesses (like depression and anxiety), having a family history of psychiatric illness, being a victim of abuse, or having a poor support system.
The following are key symptoms of PTSD but this condition may affect you in many different ways. Symptoms may also become severe enough to the point that they affect your day-to-day life and functioning.
Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about the trauma
Nightmares or recurring dreams (about the trauma or with related themes)
Avoidance of memories or outside cues that remind you of the trauma (for example: blocking memories, avoiding conversations about the trauma, or driving the long way home to avoid the intersection where your car accident occurred)
Being easily frightened or startled
Irritability or anger
Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
Feelings of detachment or numbness
Inability to fully express your emotions
Mistrust of others
Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
Early intervention following a traumatic event is important. For some people, talking about it with a family member or friend (“getting it off your chest”) may be enough. Others may need longer treatment with therapy and even medication.
Talk about your feelings: How safe do I feel? How has the trauma affected me? Am I afraid to leave the house? Am I self-medicating with drugs or alcohol? Why is my family so worried? What can I do?
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255) is an excellent source of support. It is for people in crisis, not just if you are thinking of ending your life. When you dial Lifeline, your call is routed to the crisis center closest to your location. The call is free and confidential. Someone will be there to listen to you and to provide you with information on mental health services in your community.
Remember, there is no shame in seeking help. We all need a little push every now and then.
Be Smart. Be Safe. Be Healthy. Be Strong.
Until next time!