People who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event such as bullying, domestic violence or sexual abuse, are often diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This event has triggered intense fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness in them, and as a result they might experience flashbacks, nightmares and thoughts about the traumatic event. They might also avoid anything that reminds them of the event, otherwise it might make them relive the event each time.
PTSD lasts longer than a month, at times years, or may not show up until months or years after the event. It can significantly disrupt a person’s day-to-day life (your job, relationships, health, general enjoyment), and can occur at any age, regardless of your ethnicity, nationality or culture.
What are the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
These may vary over time and vary from person to person. They can include:
- uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic event
- flashbacks and nightmares
- severe emotional or physical reactions when reminded of the event
- avoiding places, people or activities that remind them of the trauma
- showing a loss of interest in the things they used to enjoy
- feeling scared a lot of the time
- needing to be on guard or vigilant
- having angry outbursts
- feeling numb and ‘foggy’
- finding it hard to concentrate or be present
- feeling guilty or ashamed
- having difficulty connecting with other people
- either not sleeping well or wanting to sleep more than usual
- engaging in reckless or self-destructive behaviour
What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?
There’s no simple explanation for what causes PTSD. However, lots of different things might play a role, including:
- how often the trauma was experienced and how severe it was
- whether the person has other family members with mental illness
- the person’s temperament (the way they respond emotionally)
- the way the person’s brain regulates the stress hormones and chemicals released by their body.
On top of these things, the person is more likely to develop PTSD if they don’t get any or very little social support after the traumatic event or they experience other challenges in life.
How is post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed?
Only a psychiatrist can give a PTSD diagnosis, and the person must be referred to the psychiatrist by a GP who will write a referral letter to explain their observation to the psychiatrist.
Both would want to know what kind of trauma the person experienced, when did it happened, what symptoms the person is having and how long they have been happening.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must last more than month, and the symptoms must be severe enough to cause a lot of distress and making it very hard to do daily tasks and enjoy life. Many people who diagnosed with PTSD say was a relief to receive a diagnosis, because they could finally understand what was happening to them, and they could get the appropriate treatments.
How many people experience post-traumatic stress disorder?
In Australia, approximately 2% adults experience PTSD in their lifetime. According to the 2017–18 National Health Survey, 1.7% of women and 1.3% of men surveyed reported that a doctor, nurse or other health professional told them they have PTSD. This suggests that women are at a higher risk than men to experience PTSD.
Why is it important to seek help for post-traumatic stress disorder?
If a person gets the right kind of help, their chance of recovering from PTSD is stronger. Without help, their PTSD may develop into a long-term problem that becomes more difficult to live with. Because it is common for people with PTSD to experience additional mental health challenges, such as depression, alcohol and/or drug dependency, anxiety, memory problems and other physical and mental health problems, getting professional help can reduce symptoms and improve overall mental health. And even if they traumatic event was years ago, it not too late. The support they get now will help them to start their recovery.
How is post-traumatic stress disorder treated?
There are professionals who can help treat PTSD, including GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists. They offer a variety of ways to help manage symptoms. A person with PTSD might need to try a few or a combination of approaches before finding the best options that work for them. These options may be short or long-term and may include psychotherapy (talking therapy), medicines, lifestyle changes, and education about PTSD and mental wellbeing.
With all approaches, the aim is to improve symptoms, show the person new ways to deal with their PTSD symptoms and how to feel better about themselves.
Psychological therapies for PTSD
Talking with a therapist, whether alone, with family members or in group therapy, is usually the first place to start and is often very helpful for people diagnosed with PTSD. The aim of ‘talking’ therapy is to change the person’s thinking patterns and find new ways for them to respond to their trauma and symptoms.Find a psychological therapy
Medical treatments for PTSD
Medicines may be recommended if psychological therapies on their own are not enough. There are many types of medications to help with the different symptoms and side effects of PTSD. The one (or combination of medications) that works best will vary from person to person, depending on the areas the person most needs help with. It can take time to find the right medication and the right amount that works.
The results of PTSD medications also vary, at times getting rid of all symptoms, while at other times only make symptoms less intense and easier to manage. Medication can also have side effects, which should always be reported to the GP or other health professional who prescribed it.Find a GP
Lifestyle changes for PTSD
When used in conjunction with the above options, other approaches which may help when experiencing PTSD:
• breathing exercises
• listening to music
• participating in craft and hobby groups
• taking up a sport
• eating healthy food
• avoiding alcohol
• getting enough sleep
They can all make a big difference.
Education about PTSD
Following a diagnosis of PTSD, it may be helpful for the person to learn as much as they can about the illness. Reading websites like this one, listening to podcasts, requesting information sheets from health professionals, and talking to health professionals, talking with other people with PTSD either through support groups or online forums, can give the person a broader understanding.Find resources
How to get help and support for PTSD
Help is available and there are a number of ways to find it. If one of the following avenues doesn’t work, it’s worth trying another until you find the right support.
Talk to a GP
A GP is the first person to see before you can see a psychologist or psychiatrist. Many GPs have their own website these days which gives information about their personal or team’s expertise and interests. This can be useful when choosing a doctor who has experience with people with PTSD.
The GP then writes write a referral letter to a psychiatrist or psychologist, if this type of support is wanted. When necessary, the GP will prescribe medication to help with symptoms, and in this case the GP may want to see the person regularly to monitor their health.
Talk to the people you already trust
The symptoms of PTSD are really hard to live with, especially if the person is trying to cope on their own. For some people, it can be hard talking about the difficulties they’re experiencing, but telling someone could bring huge relief, making them feel less alone. This doesn’t have to be a medical person. Sometimes talking to a family member, friend or colleague is a good place to start.
The best place to start seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is a GP who can then refer to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
Patient Treatment Guide: PTSD Guidelines
The psychological treatments in this handout are the recommended evidence-based (or, ‘first line’) treatments found to be effective to treat people with PTSD. Designed to help you to decide which you would prefer.Visit site(Opens in a new tab)