Self-Help for Post-Traumatic StressBy Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D.
The term post-trauma says it all: The trauma is in the past, but people with post-traumatic stress find it difficult to leave it behind and move on. They may relive the event over and over—sometimes in bad dreams that cause disturbed sleep, in flashbacks that have them time traveling back to a distressing past moment, and in recurrent negative thoughts that can’t be stopped. This leaves them stuck in the muck of time, frequently making it impossible to escape its grip.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD or as we refer to it here, PTS) was first recognized as a trauma-related mental disorder in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association following research on the effects of war on soldiers and veterans of Vietnam. But PTS can be caused by a number of traumatic experiences other than military- or war-related trauma. To name a few: accidents, including and especially automobile accidents that threaten life or injury (the number one cause of PTS in U.S. civilian men is serious automobile accidents), physical and/or sexual abuse (the number one cause of PTS in U.S. civilian women), terrorist attacks, as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods.
How Do You Know if You Have PTS?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, after a traumatic event if you have symptoms that include depression, anxiety, flashbacks, avoidance, isolation, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, difficulty concentrating, irritability, an exaggerated startle response and hypervigilance, you may have Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). If these symptoms last longer than a month, then you may have PTS. In a nutshell, PTS is made up of three basic things—trauma, depression and anxiety. (We encourage you to visit our Psychology Today column, This is Your Brain.)
Degrees of Trauma
Just as you can suffer from a little to a lot of depression or anxiety, you can suffer from minimal to extreme degrees of PTS. If a traumatic event is severe, it becomes a long-lived, deeply embedded memory as opposed to a short-term memory like what you had for lunch last Tuesday. A person with minimal PTS will probably get better over time without therapy. For instance if they were in a fender bender, they will get their car fixed