Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is unfortunately a common condition, says Dr. Michael Bordieri of Murray State University's Psychology Department. Roughly 6.8% of people have or meet the criteria for PTSD, he says, with this number being greater among men and women in uniform. On Sounds Good, he speaks with Kate Lochte about what we know about the symptoms and some of the common treatments for helping people suffering from trauma.
Trauma in general is relatively common, Dr. Borideri says, about 90% report experiencing at least one event meeting the definition of a traumatic experience, where safety, physical integrity or risk of death or harm was very imminent. Trauma tends to be something most of us experience, he says, but most don't develop PTSD. Some traumas are more likely to lead to this - namely combat exposure - also car crashes, motor vehicle accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault and rape.
It's common to feel shaken by an event for a few days or weeks after an event, but PTST symptoms are typically those that persist for at least a month after the trauma occurs, sometimes longer. The most common form of PTSD is intrusive memories, re-experiencing the memories of the event in vivid ways. What we see in television and movies, "flashbacks" or feeling like you're back in the event, tend to be rare, he says. More often PTSD takes shape in intrusive memories, unwelcome memories, nightmares and difficulty sleeping.
Dealing with PTSD can be extraordinarily difficult, Dr. Bordieri says. It's very scary and can have a huge psychological toll to have the symptoms continue. Most try to avoid anything that might associate with the feelings of the event. This pushing away of thoughts is one of common symptoms. Another is changing how one lives their life to avoid places or things that remind them of the event, for example if one experienced a motor vehicle accident, they may not drive at all or only drive at certain times, on certain roads. Combat veterans might avoid crowded places, loud noises or be constantly on guard or watchful. PTSD sufferers might try to live in a way that avoids threats as much as possible. It can lead to negative effects on thinking and feeling: believing the world is dangerous, symptoms of depression can surface, difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in activities.
It can be hard to know if you're suffering from PTSD. Dr. Bordieri says often its friends or family members who notice and try to offer to help that person seek treatment. The good news is that there are some treatments that can help, he says. Medicines like Setraline, Zoloft and other selective serotonin uptake reinhibitors can be effective. Also evidence-based therapies developed by VA hospitals for veterans and also available to members of the community have shown effectiveness.
Most operate with the idea of 'exposure therapy.' The idea isn't that you're going to re-experience the trauma itself, but rather the memory of that trauma. People with PTSD tend to push the experience away, which can give the memory more power. The 'prolonged exposure' technique involves people coming in to talk repeatedly about the trauma over and over again, sometimes five or ten times in a 90 minute session. Throughout the week, they'll listen to their retelling over and over. It seems paradoxical, but over time the repeated telling helps someone makes sense of the memory in a different way and the real power of the memory fades.
Another method is helping people live differently, getting them back out to the places there they experienced the memory. While the situation they were in, say being rear-ended in an intersection, was traumatic, it doesn't mean that every time they stop at a stop sign something bad is going to happen. If someone is willing to practice, over time, many of the core symptoms of PTSD can drop out.