Stories about people suffering from PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, have become increasingly visible in today’s media. Often, the stories we hear about PTSD are about soldiers returning from war. But the effects of PTSD are more far-reaching, and more common, than these stories portray.
Single-incident trauma can cause PTSD and occurs when a person experiences trauma or injury once, such as a car crash, and then the trauma episode is over. Although there are still many aspects about the brain we do not understand, researchers and experts across the country have found several effective methods to treat PTSD. My team, which works with patients at Froedtert & MCW adult Level I Trauma Center, has developed appropriate systems for recognizing and treating individuals with PTSD. Using research, we have developed a screening tool to help identify trauma survivors who are likely to develop PTSD or depression. Single-incident trauma survivors, such as car accident or gunshot wound survivors, may be diagnosed with PTSD if they experience a set of very specific symptoms:
- Intrusive or re-experiencing: These symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, visual or auditory memories (such as a gunshot victim hearing gunshot sounds even if a gun isn’t firing) or repetitive thinking about the traumatic event. These symptoms may disrupt sleep patterns.
- Avoidance or emotional numbing: This occurs when a person doesn’t want to be around the people, place or situation that reminds them of the event. While some anxiety is normal for anyone involved in a traumatic event, if avoidance or numbing keeps someone from doing daily activities, it may be a sign of PTSD.
- Hyper-arousal: This is a nervous anxiety response to things that didn’t previously lead to such a response. Increased heart rate, increased respiration, stomach butterflies or sweating might occur around certain events that didn’t bother the individual before the trauma.
- Negative changes in mood and thinking: Some people may become down or depressed after a traumatic event that might change how they see the world around them. An example is beginning to believe that driving is unsafe after someone survives a car crash.
It’s important to understand that PTSD is a very treatable condition. With expert care and management, people can learn to manage their PTSD and get back to their normal daily routines. If an individual does screen positive for PTSD, but is not distressed, they are given education about what to look for in their behavior, and we keep an open line of communication with them, providing support when needed. If an individual screens positive for PTSD and is distressed, we offer several treatments.
When acute intervention is necessary, we first normalize the individual’s symptoms and help him or her to understand it’s natural to feel nervous. We help the person understand why he or she is feeling anxious or upset. In some cases, we might employ behavioral therapy, helping them find ways to manage triggers and anxiety. For example, if a woman has been in a car crash, there is no way around feeling nervous the first time she gets back in her car, so we would coach her to feel grounded and “in the moment” so she can shift her mind from worry thoughts to the present. We know from our brain research that the worst thing she can do is not get back in the car. The longer she avoids getting in the car, the bigger her anxiety and nervousness can become. If a trauma survivor flees from a situation that triggers fear and memories, she’s teaching herself behaviorally, and we believe neurologically, to avoid. With expert care, we can coach her through the triggers and fear so that so she can begin driving again.
Get Help for PTSD
The most important thing for a person to remember after a trauma is, if they start to notice symptoms, to contact a mental health professional. If within a few weeks or a month of the trauma, an individual is having trouble sleeping, is avoiding events that remind them of the trauma or avoids talking about the trauma because they are scared of the emotions it elicits, they should consider seeking medical attention. Everyone perceives situations differently, and PTSD is a real condition, not a sign of weakness.
Fear bypasses the rational part of brain and is an automatic response. As a community, we must make sure we don’t stigmatize someone who might be fearful because that could have long-term neurological consequences for trauma survivors.