By Nathan Davis
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder of the mind and body that affects approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States and approximately 12%-20% of military veterans. An estimated one in 11 people will experience PTSD in their lifetime. People with PTSD continue to have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience for a months, even years after the time the traumatic event took place.
Symptoms of PTSD differ from those of an ordinary stress response in that they become so disruptive and chronic that they interfere with normal, everyday life and can manifest even if the person is otherwise perfectly healthy. The symptoms tend to be insidious and persist longer than it normally takes for the human body to recover. That is why it is called a disorder. Though many of these symptoms can be worked through with a service dog.
The Stress Response
To understand the symptoms of PTSD, it is helpful to understand how the human body responds to stress. When a person encounters a frightening or highly stressful situation, the area of the brain called the hypothalamus activates the autonomic nervous system, which controls heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, and other involuntary actions. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered and the heart pumps harder and more rapidly. The brain then becomes hyper-oxygenated for maximum mental acuity and alertness. These reactions happen so rapidly that the person isn’t even aware that they are occurring. The amygdala and hypothalamus in the brain begin the stress response before the visual centers of the brain can even process what is happening.
While this survival mechanism is certainly necessary and beneficial to humans, the body and mind are also very impressionable. The fear, pain, and emotional distress of a traumatic experience can be so powerful, shocking, and damaging that the mind-body connection is disrupted. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions become “burned” into the person, latent and unconscious but present long after the traumatic event. This can make recovering from the experience problematic to say the least.
Some Commonly-Reported Symptoms
The symptoms of PTSD are consistent and patterned enough to distinguish it from other mental health disorders. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms of PTSD can help you find the right kind of treatment. Below are some of the commonly-reported symptoms of PTSD. Note that this list does not represent all of the symptoms of PTSD, nor does a person need to experience all of these symptoms in order to be diagnosed with PTSD. This information is not intended for diagnostic purposes, if you are concerned that you may be suffering from PTSD please contact a medical professional for assistance.
Generally speaking, people with PTSD:
- Experience intrusive mental images, thoughts or upsetting dreams related to the traumatic event
- Feel as if the trauma is recurring
- Have marked anxiety and physical distress (shortness of breath, dizziness, palpitations, sweating)
- Avoid reminders (thoughts, people, conversations, activities) of the trauma
- Have difficulty remembering important details about the trauma
- Have noticeably negative beliefs or expectations about yourself and/or others
- Persistently blame yourself or others for the trauma
- Experience unrelenting negative emotion
- Lose interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- Feel detached or disconnected from other people
- Feel emotionally numb (unable to experience positive emotions, such as love)
- Believe that your life will be shorter than originally expected
- Feel constantly on guard against danger and feeling easily startled
- Feel anxious and restless (having trouble sleeping, feeling irritable, aggressive, reckless or self-destructive, having trouble concentrating)
Breaking Down the Basics
The symptoms and effects of PTSD can be better understood when categorized into four general types:
- Intrusive reliving/re-experiencing the event
- Avoidance of situations that remind you of the event
- Negative changes in cognition, mood, beliefs, and feelings
- Heightened and prolonged changes in arousal and reactivity
These basic symptoms are explained in more detail below.
Re-experiencing or reliving the event
We are all programmed with a certain survival mechanism that have evolved to help humans react quickly to life-threatening situations. This is called the stress response, or “fight-or-flight” response. In fractions of a second, your brain readies your body to either fight for survival or flee from the perceived threat. The body releases certain hormones, heart rate increases, and muscles tense up. From a purely survival standpoint, this is a good thing. But memories of traumatic experiences can haunt and disturb a person long after it is over. Your mind tries to protect your body from the bad by storing it in your unconscious mind. These memories can resurface in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or emotions triggered by sounds, images, or smells associated with the memory.
Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
Any activity or situation that would resemble the traumatic event can become uncomfortable, unpleasant to the point where you will go out of our way to avoid them entirely. This can disrupt your daily routine and prevent you from completing simple everyday tasks. For example, a person who has been in a car accident may avoid driving or riding in a car. Avoidance also includes avoiding talking about the experience or seeking help because it brings back negative thoughts and feelings. A person suffering from PTSD may turn to, or abuse, drugs (prescription or street), alcohol, pornography or any other addictive activity for the main purposes of “forgetting” the experience. The person may develop an unhealthy relationship with one or more of these substances or activities as an escape from his or her reality.
Negative changes in thoughts and feelings
PTSD changes the way you view yourself, the world, and others. After a traumatic experience, you may be more negative, pessimistic, and cynical. Your optimism, enthusiasm, and trust in good things may seem shattered, suppressed, or crushed. Your perception of immediate threats, dangers, and fears may become unrealistic, distorted, or paranoid. You may lose interest in the things you used to love or find that you can no longer clear your mind to participate in those activities. A person’s mental cognition may seem foggy and sluggish. You may find it harder to remember simple things or that your reading comprehension is slower. The classic image of a depressed person with a gray raincloud hovering overhead is a good if not clichéd representation of a person in this state. The affected person feels isolated and unable to see or feel anything other than negative thoughts and feelings. Many people with PTSD and those who know them often remark that he or she was a “different person” before the event. The event seems to mark a meridian of time in a person’s life as the person tends to date their memories and experiences as whether they occurred either before or after the event.
Changes in Arousal and Reactivity
People with PTSD describe these kind of symptoms as “being on edge” all the time. They report feeling anxious and tense, and feeling jumpy and easily startled. Often this hyperarousal causes a person to feel more irritable and impatient than usual. They may have difficulty relaxing and sleeping. These symptoms differ from reliving the experience because they are constant—not triggered by things that remind one of the event. Over time, this hyperarousal takes a toll. Elevated and prolonged levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body have many adverse effects including weight gain, weakened immune system, poor sleep, high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries.
The best source of information regarding the symptoms of PTSD and the best treatment options for you is your doctor. There are many factors such as genes and lifestyle habits that can affect the efficacy of a certain treatment. What may work for one person may not be effective for another. One treatment option that is gaining popularity is pairing a person with PTSD with a trained service dog. The evidence supporting this alternative treatment is largely based on personal accounts from veterans with PTSD. Because many of the symptoms of PTSD affect a person’s social, psychological, and emotional well-being, a service dog can help provide a buffer or cushion between the person and the outside world. Canine Companions for Veterans is a non-profit organization that partners with veteran organizations allowing them to carefully pair service dogs with those suffering from PTSD after service in the military.
National Center for PTSD
Harvard Health Publications
National Institute of Mental Health
American Psychiatric Association