Understanding PTSD

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By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health and Wellness Contributor

I’m driving along with my nineteen year-old son Matt to Walmart to get some back-to-school items. We come to a red light. As it turns green we start to move forward slowly. Another vehicle runs the light and almost hits us. We are both startled; adrenaline is running high. Matt turns to me and says, “Mom, I’m going to have PTSD about this.”

While my son was momentarily frightened, I doubt he will experience PTSD from this incident. For most people, the term PTSD has become a catch-phrase for any experience that produces a fearful response. Because of this, many people do not understand the true nature of PTSD. Let’s examine what PTSD really is.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder. It is not simply a reaction to a stressful event. PTSD is an invisible wound. It can be severe, chronic, and disabling in some individuals. PTSD can occur in a person following exposure to a traumatic experience involving:

  • Actual or threatened death.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Serious injury.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Nightmares or night terrors.
  • Sleeplessness.
  • Depression.
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities.
  • Hypervigilance.
  • Anger and irritability.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Easily startled.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Distorted thinking.
  • Feeling emotionally cut off from others.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Aggressive behaviors.

People experiencing these symptoms may try to manage them by:

  • Avoiding places or things that may cause them to re-experience the event(s).
  • Regularly using drugs or alcohol to numb their feelings.
  • Considering harming themselves or others.
  • Avoiding crowds and isolating themselves.
  • Pulling away from family and friends.

Not everyone experiencing a traumatic event will be paralyzed by it. Evidence suggests that individuals who experience childhood physical or sexual abuse, neglect, or family dysfunction experience PTSD at a higher rate. It is possible that earlier traumatic life experience compounds the reaction to later events. For the veterans treated in our mental health practice, this correlation is almost always present.

PTSD will not go away on its own. In fact, it may never fully go away once experienced. It can, however, be treated and managed with counseling and medication. Medication will help reset brain chemicals that become skewed through stress. Counseling will help normalize experiences and help individuals learn new ways to adjust and cope.

Think you or someone you care about may have PTSD? Consider taking this assessment offered online and anonymously through the VA (Veterans Affairs):




Not sure what to do?  Learn about the mental health resources available to military families on the Military Spouse Advocacy Network’s (MSAN’s) website at  https://www.milspouseadvocacynetwork.org.

Find additional resources to help with PTSD at the National Center for PTSD: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp.

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