Around 12% of Australians experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime. Understand what causes post-traumatic stress and how to deal with it.

Symptoms of PTSD include re-living the traumatic event, and feeling emotionally numb.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is usually characterised by intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks of past traumatic events. Whilst the condition is widely known, the diagnosis can be challenging.

It’s not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, at the same time. Couple that with the fact that patients are often reluctant to discuss their experience of trauma when they are suffering from PTSD and it’s easy to see how many people could be suffering in silence.

Here are some key facts about PTSD, how to spot the signs, and what to do if you, or someone you love, is suffering.

What causes PTSD?

Many different types of trauma have been found to result in PTSD.

  • Experiences of sexual relationship violence: Rape, childhood sexual abuse, or domestic violence.
  • Traumatic events affecting loved ones: The unexpected death of a family member, seriously ill child, or other traumatic event that has occurred to a loved one.
  • Interpersonal violence: Experiencing, witnessing or being threatened with violence from another person.
  • Experience of organised violence: Fleeing or living through war as a civilian, or being kidnapped.
  • Participating in organized violence: Being exposed to combat, witnessing death or serious injury, or accidentally or purposefully causing death or serious injury.
  • Life-threatening events: For example, a serious accident or living through a natural disaster.

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What are the symptoms of PTSD?

For people with PTSD, the feelings of panic or extreme fear experienced during the traumatic event live on. There are four common types of symptoms:

  • Re-living the traumatic event: Recurring memories, vivid images and nightmares of the traumatic event. These may prompt intense emotional or physical reactions, such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic.
  • Feeling overly alert or wound up: This can result in sleeping difficulties, irritability and lack of concentration, being easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event: Deliberately avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings that bring back memories of the event.
  • Feeling emotionally numb: Losing interest in day-to-day activities, feeling cut off and detached from friends and family, or emotionally flat.

PTSD can also manifest itself as a dissociative experience. People with PTSD may express confusion or say things like “it felt like time stood still” or “I felt like I was watching myself from above”. If someone close to you is experiencing these symptoms, it’s best to consult their doctor or mental health professional to undertake a mental health assessment.

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When should I seek help?

It’s normal to feel distressed and anxious following a traumatic event, however if you are still feeling this way two weeks after the incident, you should consult your doctor.

Also, if you are feeling highly anxious or distressed and your reaction to the traumatic event is interfering with your home or work life, or you are thinking of harming yourself or others, do not wait - seek advice from your doctor immediately.

What can I do if someone I love is struggling with PTSD?

PTSD can negatively impact a person’s relationships with friends and family.

If your loved one has PTSD, they may appear disinterested or detached from things they used to be interested in. They might also seem distant and pre-occupied as their brain tries to process and block out painful memories. They may also ignore your offers of help which might make you feel shut out.

So what should you do? It’s important to remember that these behaviours are part of PTSD. People experiencing PTSD do need the support of their friends and family even if in the first instance they believe they do not need it.

beyondblue says:

“Trying, as far as possible, to minimise other stressful life experiences allows the person to focus more on their recovery. If a person feels very distressed at any time after a traumatic event, they should talk to a doctor or other health professional. If a person experiences symptoms of PTSD that persist beyond two weeks, a doctor or a mental health professional may recommend starting treatment for PTSD.”

Providing consistent support is important for a loved one with PTSD. Keep the lines of communication open and encourage them to speak to their doctor. You can also get immediate support from beyondblue’s Support Service on 1300 22 4636. Their trained mental health professionals can provide information and advice, and help you to seek further support.