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PTSD: Not A Life Sentence

Posted June 27, 2018 by Patrick A. Palmieri, Ph.D. Director, Traumatic Stress Center

PTSD blog

June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day (and all of June is PTSD Awareness Month). PTSD, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, is a condition that can develop following highly stressful life experiences. Some examples of these traumatic events are military combat, sexual assault, transportation accidents, and natural disasters. Such trauma exposure is quite common. Most people will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.

There are many common emotional, cognitive, physical and behavioral reactions to traumatic experiences. Emotionally, these can include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anger or fear.  Cognitively, it can include difficulty concentrating, confusion or paranoia. Physical symptoms can include nausea, headaches and feeling faint or dizzy. Traumatized individuals may engage in reckless or self-destructive behaviors such as excessive alcohol or other substances use, often in an attempt to cope with their distress. These are all just some examples of the kinds of reactions people might have.

Virtually everyone exposed to a traumatic event experiences some of these symptoms. They are normal reactions to highly frightening or dangerous experiences. Fortunately, for many people these tend to improve with time without formal clinical intervention, often with the help of a strong social support network of family and friends. 

However, for some people the symptoms persist or worsen and interfere with functioning in life. PTSD is one possible persistent condition that could emerge following trauma exposure.  It is one of the more common mental disorders, with 5-10% of people estimated to suffer from it at some point in their lives.

There are four main categories of PTSD symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing symptoms include intrusive trauma-related thoughts, recurring nightmares, flashbacks and emotional or physical reactivity to things (“triggers”) that remind you of the traumatic experience. For example, a combat veteran who hears sudden loud noises might experience intense anxiety and elevated heart rate, because the noise triggers memories of combat, which can elicit emotional and physical distress.
  • Avoidance symptoms include excessive avoidance of thoughts, feelings, people, places or activities that in some way remind you of a traumatic experience.  For example, someone might not only avoid a dangerous place where they were assaulted, but they might also avoid safe places like grocery stores or anywhere other people might be.
  • Negative alterations in cognition and mood include feeling emotionally detached from other people, distorted sense of blame of self or others for the traumatic event that happened, difficulty feeling positive emotion, decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities, persistent negative emotions, exaggerated negative belief about oneself or the world, and difficulty remembering details about the traumatic experience. For example, someone who has experienced interpersonal violence might have difficulty trusting others and feeling emotional close to people, including close family and friends.
  • Alterations in arousal and reactivity include irritability, risky behavior, being easily startled, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating and being hyper-alert for possible danger.  For example, when in a public place like a restaurant, someone might not feel safe unless they are at a table with an unobstructed path to an exit and are seated with their back to a wall so they can see everything around them.

If you experience enough of these symptoms for at least a month and if they are causing significant impairment in your quality of life or overall functioning, you might be suffering from PTSD and you could  benefit from consulting a qualified healthcare provider for an evaluation and, if recommended, treatment. 

Do not lose hope! Despite what seems to be a common perception, PTSD is NOT a life sentence.  Fortunately, there are effective treatments for PTSD, most notably, different forms of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. 

The Summa Health Traumatic Stress Center is an outpatient specialty clinic located at Summa St. Thomas Campus in Akron, OH. Our mission is to address the mental and behavioral health needs of traumatized individuals and families in Northeast Ohio.  We do this in three inter-related ways: providing compassionate evidence-based clinical assessment and treatment services, training current healthcare providers and the next generation of providers in trauma-informed best practices, and conducting research to advance the understanding and treatment of traumatic stress. Clinically, we conduct comprehensive diagnostic evaluations and provide the most evidence-based, effective psychotherapies for treating PTSD and other trauma-related conditions.  We can be reached at 330.379.5094 for more information or to schedule an appointment.


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