Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It often involves exposure to trauma from single events that involve death or the threat of death or serious injury. PTSD may also be linked to ongoing emotional trauma, such as abuse in a relationship or having to undergo invasive or distressing medical procedures.
Something is traumatic when it is very frightening, overwhelming and causes a lot of distress. Trauma is often unexpected, and many people say that they felt powerless to stop or change the event. It could be an event or situation that you experience yourself or something that happens to others, including loved ones.
PTSD causes intrusive symptoms such as re-experiencing the traumatic event. Many people have vivid nightmares, flashbacks, or thoughts of the event that seem to come from nowhere. They often avoid things that remind them of the event—for example, someone who was hurt in a car crash might avoid driving.
PTSD can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’ all the time. Many feel startled very easily, have a hard time concentrating, feel irritable, or have problems sleeping well. They may often feel like something terrible is about to happen, even when they are safe. Some people feel very numb and detached. They may feel like things around them aren’t real, feel disconnected from their body or thoughts, or have a hard time feeling emotions.
People also experience a change in their thoughts and mood related to the traumatic event.
While most people experience trauma at some point in their life, not all traumatic experiences lead to PTSD. We aren’t sure why trauma causes PTSD in some people but not others, but it’s likely linked to many different factors. This includes the length of time the trauma lasted, the number of other traumatic experiences in a person’s life, their reaction to the event, and the kind of support they received after the event.
Some jobs or occupations put people in dangerous situations. Military personnel, first responders (police, firefighters, and paramedics), doctors, and nurses experience higher rates of PTSD than other professions.
Many people feel a lot of guilt or shame around PTSD because we’re often told that we should just get over difficult experiences. Others may feel embarrassed talking with others. Some people even feel like it’s somehow their own fault. Trauma is hurtful. If you experience problems in your life related to trauma, it’s important to take your feelings seriously and talk to a health care professional.
A type of counselling called cognitive-behavioural therapy (or ‘CBT’) has been shown to be effective for PTSD. CBT teaches you how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours work together and how to deal with problems and stress. You can also learn skills like relaxation and techniques to bring you back to the present. You can learn and practice many skills in CBT on your own. Exposure therapy, which can help you talk about your experience and reduce avoidance, may also help. It may be included in CBT or used on its own.
Medication, such as antianxiety medication or antidepressant medication, may help with anxiety itself, as well as related problems like depression or sleep difficulties.
Support groups can also help. They are a place to share your own experiences and learn from others, and help you connect with people who understand what you’re going through. There may also be support groups for loved ones affected by PTSD.
When someone is diagnosed with PTSD, loved ones can also experience a lot of difficulties. You may feel guilty or angry about the trauma itself—then, on top of those feelings, experience difficulties around PTSD. You may feel like your loved one is a different person, worry that things will never be normal, or wonder what will happen in the future. Here are some tips to help you cope:
With support, people can recover from PTSD and the effects of trauma. Recovery is good for the entire family, especially for young people who are still learning how to interact with the world. A loved one’s recovery is a chance for everyone to learn the skills that support wellness.