July 01, 2020

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Trauma that's treatable

The four-car highway pileup happened fast. Thankfully, all drivers and passengers came away without major physical harm. But months later, not everyone is well. Some are too frightened to drive and feel their hearts race even when they're passengers in cars. Worse, some even struggle with day-to-day activities.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects some, but not all, people who are involved in a serious, jarring experience. It initially caught psychologists' attention in regard to soldiers who had been to war. Previous generations knew it as shell shock.

But it's now understood to be a far more widespread problem, affecting about 8% of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD compared with men. Left untreated, it can affect quality of life as much as or even more than other mental health conditions such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In addition, it's associated with a high risk of substance use and suicide.

Between remembering and forgetting

A variety of events may initiate PTSD, including violent assaults, disasters caused by nature or people, accidents, military combat, or terrorist acts. Some people develop what's known as acute stress disorder within a day or two of trauma. Symptoms are very much like those of PTSD but will resolve within a month.

PTSD is defined by symptoms that last a month or longer and don't get better without treatment. Symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Reliving the event ("I can't forget") — Typical occurrences include flashbacks, nightmares, recurrent memories...