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Post Traumatic Stress DisorderThe Psychology Service
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

This is an emotive label and has now entered our everyday language, primarily through prompting from the media. Consequently, it seems important to get beyond the label, in order to provide an understanding of the symptoms experienced.

Firstly, the person must have been exposed to an exceptionally traumatic and frightening event that caused intense fear, helplessness or horror. As a result they can experience notable changes to either or both their personality and lifestyle. The diagnosis initially arose following the Vietnam war to describe a melee of symptoms commonly experienced by those who had been in traumatic military combat. However, it has been extended to meet other similar distressing incidents such as a violent personal assault of a physical or sexual nature, a severe road traffic accident or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder tend to fall into four main areas.

1. Re-experiencing of the event, such as through flashbacks or nightmares;

2. Avoidance, of either thoughts or situations associated with reminders of the event;

3. Numbing type symptoms which can affect the person’s interest in their life or closeness of relationships;

4. Increased arousal symptoms such as sleep problems, irritability, concentration problems, jumpiness and hyper-awareness of potential dangers.

Younger children may experience the trauma somewhat differently to adults, for example, through repetitive play, with the theme of recurring accidents. They may begin to suffer upsetting dreams such as with the theme of monsters and the like, rather than the trauma per se. There is often some regression in their level of development. Otherwise, similar symptoms to those experienced in adulthood are present.

How long does it last?

Most people who are exposed to a traumatic event will experience some or all of these symptoms but usually they decrease within a few weeks. However, in terms of a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms are intense for at least one month and, usually, much longer. Indeed cases of chronic PTSD can continue for years without any marked signs of improvement. The duration of PTSD can vary enormously and this is partly dependent on a range of factors such as the severity of the trauma, any treatment received and the nature of the person’s psychological makeup prior to the event.

What is the treatment?

Traditional approaches to the treatment of PTSD utilise CBT techniques, focusing upon assisting the person to adjust to the nature of the trauma and address the specific presenting symptoms, such as avoidance and numbing. In addition, more recent techniques include the use of EMDR therapy, which has been found particularly helpful in alleviating symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares. With younger children, play therapy is often introduced.

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