Cory, a veteran police officer, draws his gun just as a bullet whizzes through his hair, grazing his scalp.
Emma, a bank employee freezes when a gunman holds her hostage for several hours in the safe room.
Anthony, a military officer in Afghanistan, runs through crossfire to retrieve the corpses of his buddies.
These images are all too familiar to TV audiences, but nothing can simulate a near-death experience like the ones described by Cory, Emma and Anthony.
They all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after someone is exposed to a life-threatening traumatic event. Commonly this happens after coming back from a war zone, but it can happen after any traumatic or life-threatening event.
Although many people experience very disturbing things in war or security situations, not everyone will develop PTSD. Both the Canadian Department of National Defence, and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs that 11 to 24 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have PTSD.
The prevalence of PTSD in the general population is about 7 to 8 per cent.
What are the signs?
Fight or flight is an instinctual human reaction in the face of extreme danger, when you have milliseconds to decide whether to run away to safety or to fight to defend yourself. After a traumatic event, this ”flight or fight” reaction in the body is damaged and the person freezes up when sensations, images, or feelings they had at that time recur in the here and now.
Physiological signs of fear, like rapid heartbeat and profuse sweating activate emotions of acute fear and strong normal responses to threatening situations often appear in PTSD sufferers in situations where there is no danger present.
PTSD usually develops within three months of the traumatic event, but can occur much later in life.
Some of these symptoms are referred to as Re-experiencing symptoms. These include flashbacks of the event, which can bring extreme stress on not only the mind, but also the body in terms of sweating or a racing heart. Bad dreams and frightening thoughts are also typical. The traumas from the past become torturous again, in the present.
The next category is Avoidance symptoms. This is when the sufferer goes to extremes to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. This can cause people to change their clothing, hair, and even to quit their job to avoid things that trigger memories and to have deep feelings of shame or guilt.
The last category of symptoms is called Hyper-arousal symptoms. This is when a PTSD sufferer becomes very easily stressed or fearful for their safety, such as checking that doors and windows are locked, feeling suspicious of parked cars, strangers and anything they used to consider benign. This effect of being easily startled can also lead to angry outbursts, constant vigilance for possible signs of danger, and difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. These symptoms make people more vulnerable to overuse of drugs and alcohol.
Unfortunately there is still a stigma surrounding PTSD. Because it can be such a terrifying and disruptive mental state, sufferers can be labeled as “crazy,” “dangerous,” or “violent.” Other stigmas are general beliefs that since in today’s wars people chose to go to combat, in a sense they brought it on themselves.
Many PTSD sufferers reported that they avoided early treatment because they did not want to be considered to have a mental illness. However, PTSD can be cured through different forms of therapy.
Group treatment programs for PSTD are delivered over 6 to 12 weeks, while individual therapy is customized to each person’s needs.
What happened to them?
Cory was in psychotherapy for 11 months, and eventually retired from the force to work as an investment advisor. He sometimes remembers the trauma, but can now deal with stressful feelings realistically.
Emma was off work for six months before she was able to step foot in the bank again. With the help of a psychologist, she eventually felt strong enough to return to her job.
Anthony was released from the military after intensive individual and group psychotherapy. He still has survivor guilt. He works part-time as a security guard.
A psychologist can help you learn more about PTSD and its effects, deal with explosive anger, and help you become aware of the signs leading to a recurrence.
If you or someone you know is struggling with post traumatic stress it would be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a registered psychologist.
Patients in this story are a fictional composite of people who have sought help for this issue. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Dr. Eva Fisher is an Ottawa psychologist who has been providing psychotherapy for a variety of issues for over 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @drevafisher, Facebook or Instagram @dr_evafisher. Blog writing assisted by freelance journalist Alyssa McMurtry.
Written by Dr. Eva Fisher C Psych
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