Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
There are three distinctive layers to how symptoms for PTSD are experienced. At first a person may re-live the trauma, especially when exposed to triggers that remind them of specific details. Triggers can be as simple as certain words, smells or sounds. Specific situations can also trigger reminders of the traumatic experience.
This then prompts a reaction in the way of avoidance behaviours. A person may begin to isolate themselves, initially by avoiding specific places or people which trigger reminders. Due to the intensity of emotions, a person may then become irritable, and constantly appear ‘on guard’.
Symptoms often occur within months of a traumatic event, and in some instances, many years later.
How severe symptoms are (acute or chronic) and how long they last varies from one person to the next. Treatment length also varies - many PTSD suffers recover within months, while others take a lot longer.
Signs and symptoms to look out for or be aware of include:
- Re-living the event: Memories of the event (flashbacks or hallucinations) are vivid, distressing, unwanted and intrusive of daily life and a person feels as though the experience is occurring over and over again. A person may also appear visibly uncomfortable (mentally and physically) whenever the traumatic event (or something similar) is mentioned. A person can also experience recurring nightmares about the event. Emotions which are intensely heightened during a flashback or nightmare can feel as real as they did during the actual event which took place.
- Avoidance behaviours (detachment and isolation): A person may avoid people, places or specific situations which may remind them of the event, become emotionally apathetic (incapable of expressing feelings), display a lack of interest in specific activities or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, and even experience some memory loss about the traumatic experience (forgetting important aspects of the event). Memory loss can be a choice that is made so as to ‘numb’ or detach from memories of the traumatic event.
- Reactive or arousal behaviours (hyperarousal): Irritability, concentration problems, bursts of anger, sleeping difficulties (either in falling asleep or remaining in a sleep state), feeling on constant guard (feeling a need to be ready for danger), and experiencing exaggerated responses to startling events or situations. A person with PTSD often experiences negative thoughts about themselves which occur due to intense guilt, blame or worry, as well as of others or the world as a whole. A person with PTSD will often have difficulty relating to others (affecting close relationships), feel hopeless about the future, lack the ability to show affection, or become emotionally apathetic (‘numb’) and often appear ‘jumpy’. Many may experience panic attacks as well. Associated symptoms of panic attacks include light-headedness, feeling faint or dizzy, headache, a rapid heartbeat, excitability or agitation. Many with PTSD develop self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse (e.g. drinking excessive alcohol or taking drugs) or driving dangerously.
- Physical symptoms: A person with PTSD may notice physical symptoms due to emotional and mental strain. These include a rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, a higher than normal blood pressure, nausea, muscle tension, chronic pain or diarrhoea.
- Symptoms as related to children and teenagers: A young child with PTSD may experience signs of delayed development. This includes problems and delays with motor skills, speech or language and toilet training. Young children (under the age of 6) often wet the bed, become unable to talk and develop an unusual clinginess towards a parent or other adult. Children may also re-enact details about an event through play and experience frequently frightening nightmares. Older children and teenagers, typically display similar symptoms to adults. Children between the ages of 7 and 11 often ‘act out’ details of the event through play, or drawings and written stories. Behavioural problems which develop can include destructive, disruptive or disrespectful outbursts. Many may also have frequent thoughts of attaining revenge as well. Some children tend to ‘run away’ or become withdrawn from friends, family and the school environment.