Risk factors for ptsd

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  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Dangers of Untreated PTSD
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Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that’s caused by exposure to a preceding traumatic event. PTSD is no respecter of persons and can affect anyone no matter the race, sex or age. Common traumatic events or experiences that may trigger PTSD can include the following:

  • Military combat experience
  • Natural disasters
  • Violent crimes
  • Physical abuse
  • Rape
  • Unexpected accidents
  • Witnessing a death
  • Childhood neglect
  • Experiencing a traumatic event on the job

Signs and Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

People diagnosed with PTSD will experience a wide array of negative effects. The symptoms of PTSD cause physical, mental and emotional pain that can range from uncomfortable to downright life-threatening. Symptoms can include the following:

  • Flashbacks that involve acting or feeling like the event is reoccurring
  • Upsetting memories
  • Intense nightmares
  • Insomnia or difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Hallucinations
  • Physical reactions to reminders of the event including a racing heart, rapid breathing, nausea, sweating, muscle tension or headache
  • Loss of interest in activities and, perhaps, even life itself
  • Isolation from others
  • Avoiding activities, people, places, thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma
  • Feeling paranoid or hyper-vigilant
  • Feeling irritable or showing outbursts of anger
  • Feeling depressed, hopeless, alone or guilty
  • Having suicidal thoughts or feelings

Dangers of Untreated Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

If left untreated, the effects of PTSD can lead to the following:

  • Drug abuse
  • Alcoholism
  • Relationship problems
  • Job loss
  • Other psychiatric disorders
  • Self-destructive acts or suicide attempts

The effects of PTSD can cause someone to put him/herself in danger or even endanger others including his/her family members. Untreated PTSD can cause permanent damage to the brain due to the person living in a hyper-aroused state.

Patients with PTSD may have a co-occurring mental health issue such as one of the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Panic disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Phobias

Misdiagnosed or untreated PTSD is commonly associated with substance abuse. Drugs or alcohol can act as a coping mechanism, provide a temporary escape or chance to get away or relieve physical and psychological pain. The misuse of alcohol or drugs can lead to a number of other complications in a life already complicated by PTSD. Alcohol and drug use only serve as a temporary solution. Once the substance wears off, a person will be in the same position or a worse one than before.

How Untreated PTSD Affects Family Members and Others

Those who do not find treatment for PTSD allow their condition to get worse. The effects will increase until the victim no longer has control or can manage. When a person loses control to PTSD, every aspect of his or her life is affected.

Individuals struggling with untreated PTSD are unable to control their thoughts, actions and behavior.

A thoroughly heartbreaking reality for family members and friends to witness, innocent bystanders can also be put in harm’s way due to the dangerous effects of the disorder. PTSD can lead to acts of violence, aggression and arguments, and these problems only escalate when drugs or alcohol are involved.

Ending the Risks Associated with PTSD

Professional treatment will help put an end to the many risks of untreated PTSD. It can also help sufferers find true peace and healing at last. To learn more about treatment for PTSD, treatment for families dealing with PTSD and treatment for people dealing with co-occurring disorders please call our toll-free helpline.

We are here 24 hours a day to assist you in finding the quality treatment programs that will work for you or your loved one. Call 901-350-4575 to learn more today.


What Is PTSD and What Can We Do About It?

Our society still faces a huge battle in understanding mental illnesses, even now with all of our advances in technology. In America alone, 43.8 million people suffer from a mental illness every year.

The most common mental illnesses are clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, dementia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most people have heard of these disorders, if not suffer from one of them or know someone who does.

However, there is another type of mental illness that anyone is susceptible to at any time. We have no control over when and if we develop it, and it can completely change our lives and the lives of the people around us.

We’re talking about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Many of us only have a vague understanding of what PTSD is, how it happens and how it affects people. When we think of PTSD we typically think of the soldier who has just returned home and can’t re-adjust to civilian life.

However, PTSD can be caused by many things and affect absolutely anyone, not just soldiers in extreme situations. Let’s take a deeper look at what PTSD is, what causes it, and what we can do to treat it and prevent it.

What Is PTSD?

So what exactly is PTSD? Put simply, it’s an anxiety disorder that occurs after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. If you have PTSD or think you have PTSD, you’re not alone. PTSD affects 14 million adults every single year.

Many of us experience or witness traumatic events and feel the effects immediately afterward. We’re overtaken by fear and the “fight or flight” response, and these reactions are natural and keep us safe.

For most people these effects fade away with self-care and time, but sometimes the effects can linger over a long period of time and even get worse. If this is happening to you, you might have PTSD.

What Causes PTSD?

As mentioned earlier, PTSD is caused by traumatic events. There isn’t a definitive list of things that will definitely cause PTSD, or a “main” cause of PTSD, because each person reacts to traumatic events differently.

What causes PTSD for one person may not have an effect on another. However, there are certain events that heavily influence the chances of someone developing PTSD, such as:

  • Experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening situation.
  • Surviving a violent act such as domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, physical and/or verbal abuse or physical assault.
  • Surviving a car accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack.
  • Being exposed to war.
  • Dealing with the sudden and unexpected death of a close friend or relative.
  • Helping victims during traumatic events.
  • Being neglected as a child or being physically or sexually abused as a child.

Any one can experience any of these things during their lifetime, and experiencing them can lead to the development of PTSD. Anything that has a significantly negative impact on our lives can cause PTSD.

Even simple, mundane things that people most deal with every day can affect someone so powerfully that it causes them to develop the disorder.

Something like a bad break up could send someone far enough over the edge that they develop PTSD develop the symptoms of PTSD. It all depends on the individual and how they respond to the negative event.

What Are The Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD has numerous symptoms, all of which can have a lasting impact on your life. Sometimes you may develop the symptoms immediately following the traumatic event, other times the symptoms might lay dormant for months or even years.

The symptoms can cause serious problems at work and in relationships, and can even make getting through daily life a struggle. Typically, PTSD symptoms are broken down into four groups:

● Intrusive memories
● Avoidance
● Negative changes in thinking and mood
● Changes in physical and emotional reactions.

The symptoms someone experiences can change over time, and they will differ from person to person.

Intrusive Memories

Having intrusive memories is when memories of the traumatic event intrude into your mind consume your thoughts. You might have recurring, unwanted memories of the event, flashbacks and nightmares of the event, or even physical and emotional reactions to things that remind you of the event.

Avoidance

Avoidance is just that, trying to avoid anything and everything that reminds you of the event or that forces you to talk about it.

Negative Changes In Thinking And Mood

The traumatic experience can change who you are as a person, making you think negatively and act negatively. Some common changes are negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world, hopelessness about the future, not being able to remember important aspects of the traumatic event, and memory problems in general.

You may also start having trouble maintaining close relationships and start feeling detached from family and friends. Things you once loved may not be important to you anymore. Simply being happy and positive can become extremely difficult, and you may become emotionally numb.

Changes In Physical And Emotional Reactions

Also called arousal symptoms, these symptoms completely change the way you react to things around us. People suffering from PTSD can be easily startled and be always on guard, expecting something bad to happen. They may also develop self-destructive behavior, such as drinking and having a disregard for the law.

Trouble sleeping and trouble concentrating can become the norm. People with PTSD often become very irritable and have angry outbursts or aggressive behavior when they normally wouldn’t. And most of the time, they will feel overwhelming guilt or shame about the traumatic event.

How Does PTSD Affect Daily Life?

As you’ve probably assumed, having PTSD can greatly affect your day to day life. Doing simple things like grocery shopping or going to a ballgame with friends can become extremely challenging tasks for someone with PTSD.

You also have to deal with your PTSD “triggers” every day. You might wake up feeling fine, but then something happens to you that triggers your PTSD and causes your symptoms to return.

Some triggers are obvious, like the sound of car backfiring resembling the sound of a gun. Others are not so obvious. Maybe you were robbed and assaulted during a thunderstorm, so now every time you’re in a thunderstorm or here a report of a thunderstorm your PTSD could be triggered.

There are several things that can be PTSD triggers, such as:

● Certain people
● Thoughts and feelings
● Specific objects
● Certain smells
● Places
● TV shows, news reports, or movies
● Sounds
● Tastes
● Situations
● Anniversaries
● Certain keywords

There’s no timetable to gauge how long PTSD will last. To be diagnosed with PTSD, you have to have symptoms for at least a month, so it can last anywhere from a few months to many years. The median duration of PTSD is between 3-5 years, but those numbers will vary greatly case by case.

Preventing and Treating PTSD

After a traumatic event, most people will have some symptoms similar to PTSD. Anger, fear, depression and anxiety are all common reactions to trauma. It’s important to do something right away to keep your symptoms from developing into the long lasting effects of PTSD.

Getting help and support immediately will go a long way in preventing the development of PTSD. Reach out to friends and family members. Don’t keep anything pent up inside of you. Consider seeing a counselor or arranging a therapy session. Some people reach out to their faith communities.

There’s no guarantee this will prevent you from developing PTSD, but it will certainly help you recover from the traumatic event.

The good news is that PTSD can be treated with success. Your memories will never go away, but you can manage the way you react to them and help remove some of the triggers. Treatment and support are critical to your recovery, so it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.

Here are a few of the treatments available for PTSD.

Facing your trauma can be very difficult, but doing it with a mental health expert can help you get better. There are different types of therapy experts use for treatment.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps you change the thought patterns that keep you from recovering from the traumatic event.
  • Exposure Therapy helps you confront the memories and situations that cause your distress.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy helps you process your emotions and challenge your thinking patterns about the event.
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy identifies current life situations that trigger PTSD symptoms.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing connects you to a therapist who will wave a hand or baton in front of you while think about the trauma. You follow the movements with your eyes. This helps your brain process your memories and reduce your negative feelings about the memories.
  • Couples Counseling and Family Therapy helps couples and family members understand each other.

Medicine

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs are used to treat PTSD. They can help reduce anxiety, depression, and a variety of other symptoms that accompany PTSD. Sedatives are used to help with sleep issues, and anti-anxiety medicine can also be helpful.

Support Groups

Lead by a mental health professional, a group of between 4-12 people suffering from PTSD will get together and discuss what they’re dealing with, how they’re handling it, what works, and so on. Talking to other people that are experiencing the same difficulties as you is a great step to recovery. It’s good to know you’re not alone.

RELATED: How to Help Those Considering Suicide

Self-Care

There are a number of things you can do on your own to treat your PTSD. Figure out what works for you and add them to your daily routine.

  • Connect with friends and family
  • Relax
  • Exercise
  • Get enough rest
  • Keep a journal
  • Refrain from using drugs and alcohol
  • Help others and volunteer
  • Limit TV

If you think you’re suffering from PTSD, it’s very important to seek help right away. Even if you aren’t sure, seeing a doctor to at least rule it out could be one of the most important things you do. If PTSD is left untreated, it can lead to very severe consequences.

Many people turn to drugs or alcohol to help deal with their anxiety, but this only makes things worse for those with PTSD. They can also suffer from long term anger issues, which can lead to worse things like spousal or child abuse.

Because of the anger issues and many of the other symptoms, many people with untreated PTSD end up alone. Many of their symptoms make them difficult to deal with and be around, so the people in their lives start to disappear.

The last, and perhaps worse consequence of untreated PTSD, is severe depression. Because they are experiencing the traumatic event repeatedly, most people suffering from untreated PTSD will become severely depressed. This often times leads to suicidal thoughts and actions while going through a PTSD episode.

Learn more about depression counselors and suicide counselors.

Conclusion

Even today, mental illnesses like PTSD still plague our society. However, our understanding of PTSD continues to grow, and we’re more effective now than we’ve ever been at diagnosing it and treating it. Mental illnesses used to carry a negative stigma with them, but that is beginning to diminish.

If you believe that you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD, get help right away. There are several highly successful treatments available that can be started right away. If left untreated, PTSD can lead to some very extreme consequences.

You deserve better.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a set of symptoms — feeling jittery, sleeping problems, trouble concentrating — that someone develops after they experience something harmful, terrifying, or upsetting.

Any kind of extreme stress can lead to PTSD. It often develops after a direct experience in which someone is seriously injured or threatened with injury or death. It also can happen to people who witness stressful events or learn about an unexpected or violent death or injury to a family member or close friend.

In some cases, PTSD can develop after repeated or extreme exposure to traumatic events. This can be the case with people such as policemen, firemen, and EMTs.

When you’re in a stressful or dangerous situation, your body responds by producing hormones and chemicals as part of the “fight-or-flight” reaction (so named because that’s exactly what the body is preparing itself to do — to either fight off the danger or run from it). Usually, when the danger is over, the body goes back to normal.

But when someone has PTSD, his or her stress response system doesn’t switch off as it should.

Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:

  • violent assaults, including rape
  • fire
  • physical or sexual abuse
  • acts of violence (such as school or neighborhood shootings)
  • natural or man-made disasters
  • car accidents
  • military combat (this form of PTSD is sometimes called “shell shock”)
  • witnessing another person go through these kinds of traumatic events
  • being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first month after the trauma. But in some cases, they can start months or even years later. Symptoms can go on for years or they can go away and then come back if another event brings up memories of the trauma. In fact, anniversaries of the event can cause a flood of emotions and unpleasant memories.

Someone with PTSD might have some or all of these symptoms:

  • Reliving the traumatic event. People with PTSD might have nightmares, flashbacks, or disturbing mental images about the trauma.
  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma. People with PTSD may avoid people, places, or activities that remind them of the stressful event. They also may avoid talking about what happened, even to a therapist or counselor.
  • Emotional numbness. Many people with PTSD feel numb or detached. They may view the world more negatively or feel like they can’t trust anything. Scientists and doctors think this might be because the body makes too much of some in the brain that numb the senses during stress.
  • Anxiety. People with PTSD may be easily startled, on edge, jumpy, irritable, or tense. This may be due to high levels of stress hormones in the body. Difficulty concentrating and trouble sleeping can be part of this hyper-alert, anxious state.

Who Gets PTSD?

People of any age — kids, teens, and adults — can develop PTSD. But not everyone who lives through a serious trauma develops it. In fact, most people do not. Many recover from life-threatening traumas without developing PTSD. This ability to cope and bounce back is called resilience.

Researchers have found that certain things can affect people’s resilience. Everything from someone’s belief in his or her ability to overcome problems to the types of hormones a person’s body makes may play a role in coping with extreme stress. Someone who can cope better is more resilient and likely to recover quickly, while someone who is less resilient may be more likely to develop PTSD.

The circumstances of a traumatic event also can affect someone’s reaction. National disasters like a terrorist attack, mass shooting, or a major hurricane or tornado can make many people feel anxious, even if they weren’t directly affected. In some cases, seeing images of those events on TV or online can lead to symptoms much like PTSD.

How Is PTSD Treated?

Usually, PTSD doesn’t just go away on its own. Without treatment, symptoms can last for months or years, or they may come and go in waves. Getting treatment and support can make all the difference. Mental health professionals (such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors) who specialize in treating anxiety problems often have experience working with people who have PTSD.

Therapy for PTSD involves meeting a therapist and then, at your own pace, gradually talking about what happened. Therapy should feel like a safe environment and should help you learn strategies and skills to help with difficult feelings, such as anxiety, fear, or panic.

Strategies therapists recommend include relaxation techniques that can help adjust your stress response, group therapies, and support groups. In some cases, medicines can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, panic, or depression.

Healing From Trauma

Sometimes people with PTSD avoid seeking professional help because they’re afraid that talking about what happened will bring back memories or feelings that are too painful, or they might worry that it means they’re “crazy.”

But getting help is actually the sane and healthy thing to do. A therapist can help someone deal with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or frustration and discover inner strengths that can make the person feel better.

Talking to a trained professional in a safe environment at your own pace often leads to long-term healing. Working through the memories and worries can help reduce symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. It also can help people avoid potentially harmful behaviors and emotions, like drug use or extreme anger.

So how do you find the right therapist or counselor for you? The best way is to ask a parent, doctor, or adult you trust for help. People who are close to you know you well and understand your needs. (Having a support system of family and friends can really help in recovering from PTSD.) A doctor or school counselor also might be able to help you find a mental health professional who specializes in anxiety problems. And you can search online for therapists in your area.

PTSD is treatable. In the process of healing from trauma, some people discover strengths they didn’t know they had or find a support network they didn’t know was there. Others find that treatment helps them develop new insights into life and how to cope with other problems.

Reviewed by: Shirin Hasan, MD Date reviewed: July 2018

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The main treatments for people with PTSD are medications, psychotherapy (“talk” therapy), or both. Everyone is different, and PTSD affects people differently, so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. It is important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental health provider who is experienced with PTSD. Some people with PTSD may need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms.

If someone with PTSD is going through an ongoing trauma, such as being in an abusive relationship, both of the problems need to be addressed. Other ongoing problems can include panic disorder, depression, substance abuse, and feeling suicidal.

Medications

The most studied type of medication for treating PTSD are antidepressants, which may help control PTSD symptoms such as sadness, worry, anger, and feeling numb inside. Other medications may be helpful for treating specific PTSD symptoms, such as sleep problems and nightmares.

Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication or medication combination, as well as the right dose. Check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on patient medication guides, warnings, or newly approved medications.

Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) involves talking with a mental health professional to treat a mental illness. Psychotherapy can occur one-on-one or in a group. Talk therapy treatment for PTSD usually lasts 6 to 12 weeks, but it can last longer. Research shows that support from family and friends can be an important part of recovery.

Many types of psychotherapy can help people with PTSD. Some types target the symptoms of PTSD directly. Other therapies focus on social, family, or job-related problems. The doctor or therapist may combine different therapies depending on each person’s needs.

Effective psychotherapies tend to emphasize a few key components, including education about symptoms, teaching skills to help identify the triggers of symptoms, and skills to manage the symptoms. One helpful form of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT can include:

  • Exposure therapy. This helps people face and control their fear. It gradually exposes them to the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses imagining, writing, or visiting the place where the event happened. The therapist uses these tools to help people with PTSD cope with their feelings.
  • Cognitive restructuring. This helps people make sense of the bad memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it happened. They may feel guilt or shame about something that is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way.

There are other types of treatment that can help as well. People with PTSD should talk about all treatment options with a therapist. Treatment should equip individuals with the skills to manage their symptoms and help them participate in activities that they enjoyed before developing PTSD.

How Talk Therapies Help People Overcome PTSD
Talk therapies teach people helpful ways to react to the frightening events that trigger their PTSD symptoms. Based on this general goal, different types of therapy may:

  • Teach about trauma and its effects
  • Use relaxation and anger-control skills
  • Provide tips for better sleep, diet, and exercise habits
  • Help people identify and deal with guilt, shame, and other feelings about the event
  • Focus on changing how people react to their PTSD symptoms. For example, therapy helps people face reminders of the trauma.

Beyond Treatment: How can I help myself?

It may be very hard to take that first step to help yourself. It is important to realize that although it may take some time, with treatment, you can get better. If you are unsure where to go for help, ask your family doctor. You can also check NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses page or search online for “mental health providers,” “social services,” “hotlines,” or “physicians” for phone numbers and addresses. An emergency room doctor can also provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.

To help yourself while in treatment:

  • Talk with your doctor about treatment options
  • Engage in mild physical activity or exercise to help reduce stress
  • Set realistic goals for yourself
  • Break up large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and do what you can as you can
  • Try to spend time with other people, and confide in a trusted friend or relative. Tell others about things that may trigger symptoms.
  • Expect your symptoms to improve gradually, not immediately
  • Identify and seek out comforting situations, places, and people

Caring for yourself and others is especially important when large numbers of people are exposed to traumatic events (such as natural disasters, accidents, and violent acts).

Next Steps for PTSD Research

In the last decade, progress in research on the mental and biological foundations of PTSD has lead scientists to focus on better understanding the underlying causes of why people experience a range of reactions to trauma.

  • NIMH-funded researchers are exploring trauma patients in acute care settings to better understand the changes that occur in individuals whose symptoms improve naturally.
  • Other research is looking at how fear memories are affected by learning, changes in the body, or even sleep.
  • Research on preventing the development of PTSD soon after trauma exposure is also under way.
  • Other research is attempting to identify what factors determine whether someone with PTSD will respond well to one type of intervention or another, aiming to develop more personalized, effective, and efficient treatments.
  • As gene research and brain imaging technologies continue to improve, scientists are more likely to be able to pinpoint when and where in the brain PTSD begins. This understanding may then lead to better targeted treatments to suit each person’s own needs or even prevent the disorder before it causes harm.

Pre-Existing Risk Factors for PTSD and Childbirth

Heidi Koss, MA, LMHC, Former PATTCh Board Member

Health care providers aren’t exactly sure why some people get post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to a traumatic event while others do not. Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop when you go through, see or learn about an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror. Any trauma, including birth trauma, lies in the eye of the beholder. What one may perceive as traumatic might not be traumatic to others.

As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:

  • Your inherited mental health risks, such as an increased risk of anxiety and depression
  • Your life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through since early childhood. PTSD can result from a cumulative effect of multiple traumas over a lifetime.
  • The inherited aspects of your personality — often called your temperament
  • The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress

General Risk factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors increase risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event, including:

  • Being female – Women may be at increased risk of PTSD because they are more likely to experience the kinds of trauma that can trigger the condition.
  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life
  • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
  • Having first-degree relatives with mental health problems, including PTSD and depression
  • History of abuse (such as childhood abuse, sexual abuse, rape)
  • Combat exposure
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • Car accident, plane or train crash
  • Life threatening experience (such as natural disaster, critical injury, medical crisis, attack, mugging)

These symptoms should alert you to possible PTSD:

  • Flashbacks of the event, vivid & sudden memories
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Fears of recurrence
  • Emotional numbing
  • Panic attacks
  • Inability to recall important aspects of the event – psychogenic amnesia
  • Exaggerated startle response, Hyper-arousal, always on guard
  • Hyper-vigilance, constantly looking around for trouble or stressors
  • Avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event
  • Intense psychological stress at exposure to events that resemble the traumatic event

How is PTSD different than other Pregnancy and Postpartum Mood Disorders?

Sometimes perinatal mood disorders overlap and it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. PTSD is caused by an event in which you feel threatened, violated, and feel as if you could die. By the way our brain has processed the memory of the event, is causes heightened anxiety, hypervigilance, flashbacks, nightmares, etc. Therefore PTSD is an anxiety or stress reaction and it is different from other postpartum mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. However, other postpartum mood disorders can occur at the same time PTSD.

Heidi Koss, MA, LMHCA is a psychotherapist in private practice in Redmond, WA specializing in pregnancy and postpartum mood disorders (PPMD), birth trauma, and parent adjustment issues. She has been the Executive Director of Postpartum Support International of Washington (PSI of WA), WA State Coordinator for Postpartum Support International as well as co-founder of the Northwest Association for Postpartum Support (NAPS). She offers consultant services and PPMD trainings. Heidi has also been a Postpartum Doula and Certified Lactation Educator, and is a board member of PATTCh, Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth. Heidi is also the proud mother of 2 beautiful daughters.

How Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Works

Around 70 percent of Americans have endured some traumatic experience within their lifetimes . These may come in the form of a bad car wreck, a rape or an assault. It can be surviving a natural disaster, experiencing a loved one dying unexpectedly, or even killing another person, as in war. Up to 20 percent of those who’ve suffered go on to experience PTSD . Why? A class of hormones in the brain called glucocorticoids help control our response to stress, and after a traumatic experience, this hormone can become depleted. When another trauma occurs, and the glucocorticoid levels are already low, the stress response to the experience can be more intensified. This condition can increase the likelihood of the person developing PTSD .

Personality traits have also been shown to play a part in the development of PTSD. People who have an optimistic outlook on life — a belief that there’s order to the universe, and that other people are generally good — have less of a chance of developing PTSD after suffering a trauma. So, too, do people who are resourceful — who tend to take obstacles and challenges head-on .

Conversely, those with problem-avoidance behavior have been shown to have an increased risk of developing PTSD. This indicates that part of the development of PTSD is increased by the avoidance symptom — the desire to ignore the trauma rather than address it .

People who are college educated are less likely to develop chronic PTSD. So are people who have or had a good relationship with their fathers. At the same time, people who were raised in an abusive environment or have little education are more likely to develop PTSD. It also appears that women are more likely to develop the disorder .

There is also some emerging evidence that PTSD may occur on a genetic level. One gene being looked at is the serotonin transporter gene. A paper indicated that mutations in this gene can have an impact on attention to environmental threats, suggesting that if certain people have a hard time modulating attention to threat in the environment (for instance through hypervigilance) they may be more prone to PTSD .

Another study suggests that PTSD may be the result of epigenetics – changes to the function of genes that can happen in a lifetime. A 2009 study of Detroit residents showed that those who fit the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis had six to seven times the regular amount of epigenetic changes to their genes of those in the control group. Most of the genes that had undergone epigenetic change were responsible for immune system function .

However, the most important factor in the development (or not) of PTSD is the existence of a strong social support network. Time and again, people who have close relationships with those around them have been shown to be much less likely to develop PTSD and more likely to recover from it. Trauma counselor Jacob Lindy referred to this network as a trauma membrane, a group of people who form a protective cover over the person who has suffered the trauma and protect that person from undergoing further damage . For example, a 2008 study indicated that Israeli kids were less depressed after exposure to rocket attacks if they had a solid social group .

It should be noted that what’s most important about this social network is how it’s perceived by the sufferer. A well-intentioned but overbearing support network will have a less positive effect than one that allows the sufferer to grieve on her own terms .

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