What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition or (DSM-5) states that PTSD is caused by ‘Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence …’. The DSM-5 then describes in great detail how a person can be exposed to these traumatic circumstances along with symptoms and behaviours that commonly occur with such an exposure. These exposures described in the DSM-5 include:
Directly experiencing the traumatic event.
Witnessing, in person, the event(s) as it occurred to others.
Learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend. In cases of actual or threatened death of a family member or friend, the event(s) must have been violent or accidental.
Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s) (ie: first responders collecting human remains, police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. A mental Illness that we at OSI-CAN prefer to think of as an Operational Stress Injury or Occupational Stress Injury that one can recover from rather than to refer to it as a Disorder. PTSD or an OSI involves exposure to trauma involving death or the threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
Some jobs or occupations put people in dangerous and traumatic situations. Military personnel, first responders (police, firefighters, and paramedics), doctors, and nurses experience higher rates of PTSD than other professions.
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. Traumatic events may include crimes, natural disasters, accidents, war or conflict, or other threats to life. It could be an event or situation that you experience yourself or something that happens to others, including loved ones.
PTSD or an OSI 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 places, people, conversations, or even things that remind them of the event—for example, someone who was hurt in a car crash might avoid driving.
PTSD or an OSI can make people feel very nervous or ‘on edge’. 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. For some people, alcohol or drugs can be a way to cope with PTSD or an OSI.
Why does PTSD not affect everyone equally?
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 or an OSI 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.
Trauma is not always a single event in the past. Some trauma, particularly repeated acts like abuse or trauma during wartime, can impact a person’s life far beyond the symptoms of PTSD. Some use other terms like ‘complex PTSD’ to describe these experiences.