What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD

According to the DSM 1V (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 1V), up to 14% of people at some time in their lives experience this disorder. It happens when someone experiences a traumatic experience such as rape, war, being held up, or a natural disaster. Many sufferers of PTSD don’t realise they have it or aren’t informed about available treatments. As such they spend years suffering from its effects when there are effective Psychological methods which greatly reduce or eradicate their symptoms.

Diagnostic History of PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, was only officially recognised as a real diagnosis in 1980 when it was first introduced to the DSM 111. It was an attempt to explain war neurosis commonly known as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” This is described by Scott in his paper “PTSD in DSM 111: A Case in the Politics of Diagnosis and Disease”.

When Does PTSD Occur?

PTSD occurs when someone experiences a traumatic experience such as rape, war, being held up, or a natural disaster. During such traumatic experiences, the emotion of fear and perhaps horror, sadness and disgust, is so intense that the person’s brain cannot properly process the emotion or the content of what is happening. The processing in the brain is also disjointed. When someone recalls what happened they may forget some or all of it, and they tend to recall a sight, sound or smell in a disconnected way.

Symptoms of PTSD


This lack of processing results in re-experiencing the traumatic event and high anxiety. Re-experiencing comes in the form of intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks (as though you are watching the event on a movie screen), and sometimes somatic re-experiencing, which is when the person feels the physical sensations they experienced during the trauma.

Avoidance then results from re-experiencing. The person will tend to avoid any people, places, events, or media that might trigger memories of what happened. For example, a war veteran may not read the newspaper in case they see or read descriptions of violence or war. This avoidance then can lead to what is known as agoraphobia, when the person doesn’t want to leave the home or be in situations in which escape is difficult.

During the trauma, the person’s “fight and flight” system switches on. This is the system that keeps us alert to danger and helps us survive by running or fighting when we need to. For people with PTSD it’s as though this system hasn’t switched off. This leaves them always feeling anxious, sometimes to the point of having panic attacks. They also are hyper aware of danger and are easily triggered by their environment.

Effective Psychological Treatments for PTSD

Psychological therapies to help the person reduce their anxiety and process their memories of the traumatic event, have been shown to be highly successful in helping PTSD sufferers. Exposure therapy, otherwise known as “memory work,” and the once controversial Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) are both now well established as two of the most evidenced based psychological treatments for PTSD.

More research about these and other evidence based treatments can be found in “Effective Treatments for PTSD”. These therapies should only be done by trained professionals in the area. A good starting point for finding a trained therapist is by going to the “Find a Psychologist” link on the Australian Psychological Society website.

What’s most important is that sufferers understand what is happening to them and they know that effective help is out there to provide real relief.

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