In the past, doctors believed that trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only affected military combat veterans. Today, mental health experts agree that trauma and its psychological fallout can affect anyone at any age. According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, about eight percent of Americans have had PTSD at some point in their lives.
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What Trauma Feels Like
When you experience a dangerous, scary, or disturbing event, your body enters fight-or-flight mode. Stress hormones flood the body, temporarily enhancing your physical ability and speeding up your breathing and heart rate until the danger passes. Afterward, your body functions return to normal. Depending on the severity of the event and your reaction to it, however, your mental health could be permanently affected.
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Causes of Trauma and PTSD
Common events that cause trauma include physical abuse and sexual assault. It’s also possible to experience trauma-induced PTSD without being the victim of a traumatic event. For example, you can experience psychological trauma when a loved one dies or if you or a loved one receives a frightening diagnosis such as cancer. First responders, child abuse investigators, and other professionals can develop PTSD from exposure to disturbing events.
For a few weeks after experiencing trauma, stress hormones may reappear, causing a physiological reaction similar to that experienced during the traumatic event. This is called acute stress disorder. Symptoms include reliving the event through memories or dreams and feeling numb. During this time, it’s important to acknowledge the intrusive thoughts and allow yourself time to recover. You could have PTSD if you’re still not back to feeling like yourself four to six weeks later.
Experts use four categories of symptoms to identify and diagnose PTSD. These symptoms are common soon after a trauma; but if they continue, it could be a sign that you have PTSD.
Intrusive thoughts (re-experiencing symptoms): Certain phrases, objects, people, and even smells may remind you of the traumatic event and trigger flashbacks, racing thoughts, and nightmares.
Avoidance reminders: Examples of avoidance include changing your routine to stave off thoughts of the traumatic incident and avoiding people and places that remind you of what happened.
Arousal and reactive symptoms: These include constantly feeling tense or jumpy, startling easily, having trouble sleeping, difficult concentrating, and losing your temper more easily than usual.
Negative thoughts and feelings: Feeling isolated or detached from family and friends and struggling to remember key parts of the traumatic event are signs of cognition and mood impairment resulting PTSD. Other symptoms include feelings of guilt, self-blame, and loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy.
Any combination of these symptoms can seriously impact your psychological health and can even affect your physical health. A study in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes showed PTSD may be linked to heart attacks and stroke.
No one should suffer PTSD from trauma in silence — treatment is available. If you think you may have trauma PTSD, the experts at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital can help. Call 412-624-2100 to make an appointment.
Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or the beat of the heart. And when they do, seconds matter. UPMC’s emergency and trauma care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our emergency departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care, including Level 1 trauma centers at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Mercy, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, a Level 2 trauma center at UPMC Hamot, and a trauma center at UPMC Altoona.