What is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be complex and chronic and is a clinically diagnosed condition that occurs in individuals who experience or witness a traumatic event that involves the actual or possible threat of death, violence, or serious injury. Examples of traumatic events include experiencing or witnessing a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist act, war/combat, rape, or being threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury. A traumatic event could also be learning about a close friend or family member experiencing a traumatic event. It can also be repeated exposure to the details of traumatic events, such as with first responders.
Following a traumatic event, most people will experience symptoms such as difficult memories, feeling on edge, or trouble sleeping. These short-term symptoms are known as acute stress disorder (ASD) and typically occur within the first month following the trauma. When the symptoms of ASD persist for longer than a month, an individual may have PTSD.
What is it like to live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
Read insights from Veterans and stories of people living with brain trauma.
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Symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Symptoms and signs of PTSD can vary in severity and fall into the following four types:
- Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event.
- Avoidance of people, places, activities, objects, or situations that are reminders of the traumatic event or avoiding remembering, talking, or thinking about the traumatic event.
- Alterations in cognitions and mood, including being unable to remember important aspects of the traumatic event; negative thoughts and feelings about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); feelings of anger, guilt or shame; a loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed; and feeling detached or estranged from others.
- Changes in arousal and reactivity, including being easily irritated, experiencing angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive manner; being hypervigilant or easily startled; or having difficulties concentrating or sleeping.
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How is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Diagnosed?
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Treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is typically treated using psychotherapy or medications. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, includes cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Medications such as antidepressants are often prescribed, and anti-anxiety medications may also be prescribed.
Although psychotherapy and medication can significantly reduce PTSD symptoms for some people, there is still great room for improvement. Only two drugs have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to specifically treat PTSD. Both of these medications are in a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) and are also approved to treat depression. These medications do not reduce PTSD symptoms for everyone; only 20 – 30% of patients achieve remission (i.e., they no longer have PTSD). The nonresponse rate for psychotherapy is also high, with many people stopping early. As a result, treatment-resistant PTSD remains a significant problem.
We’re working to address this problem through robust and rigorous research to help better understand the biological underpinnings of PTSD. PTSD is a complex condition with different symptoms in different people. Gaining a better understanding of brain circuits and molecular pathways causing symptoms can enable better diagnoses and more effective treatments that target those circuits or pathways.
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Veterans and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
For Veterans living with PTSD and brain injury, statistics show the invisible wounds continue long after they return home.
The invisible wounds of war—including post-traumatic stress (PTSD)—are common among those with military experience. Living with these conditions can be challenging for the person with the diagnosis, their family members, and their caregivers.
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Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Suicide Risk
Veterans living with PTSD are at a higher risk of suicide, as they spend years waiting for a diagnosis that will explain their symptoms or cycle through numerous treatments without finding relief.
Brain trauma changes the structure and function of the brain and can lead to various cognitive, physical, and emotional symptoms. Some of these symptoms may appear immediately after the traumatic event or brain injury, while others may be delayed, emerging months, or even years later. This complexity makes diagnosing and treating PTSD more difficult.
Delayed diagnosis and ineffective treatments can result in the most devastating outcome of all, suicidality. For the first time in our nation’s history, suicides from invisible wounds are outpacing the number of in-theatre deaths from physical wounds.
We must treat the underlying conditions that increase the risk of suicide.
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Our Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Research That is Making a Difference
Our mission is to fast-track and advance solutions to diagnose and treat PTSD. No one who experiences brain trauma should suffer the effects for a lifetime.
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Resources and Further Reading
Cohen Veterans Bioscience (CVB) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) public charity research organization and does not offer medical advice. CVB encourages you to seek medical advice from a physician or healthcare provider if you have questions regarding a medical condition or to call 911 or go to the nearest hospital if you find that you or someone you are concerned about is in an emergency situation.