Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Accidents and other traumatic events upset our peace of mind as well as hurt our bodies.
It’s natural to feel shaken and confused, to cry at inopportune moments, and to feel physically ill, perhaps nauseous. Such reactions are part of the “fight-or-flight” response our bodies are programmed to feel when in the midst of a crisis. In fact, this response is a healthy reaction meant to protect us from harm. But when someone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the normal reaction becomes changed or distorted, so that they continue to have abnormal reactions long after the crisis, when they are no longer in danger.
The exaggerated stress response some people experience after an accident is one of the least understood kinds of medical trauma. With over six million people injured or killed in car accidents every year, the possibility of PTSD for many accident survivors is significant.
How Does a Normal Response Differ from PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress, or PTS, is the normal response to a shocking, upsetting event. After an accident or other stressful situation, it is perfectly natural to feel:
- Numb (or, conversely, to cry a lot)
- Emotionally out-of-control or “crazy”
- Fearful often, especially in situations that remind you of the stressful event
- Like you are unable to stop thinking about the event
- Distracted and unable to concentrate
- Physically “shaky,” with a racing heart.
If you recently suffered from a traumatic event, rest assured that such symptoms usually fade after no more than a few weeks. Your body and brain are reacting normally.
However, if the reactions continue after more than a couple of weeks, or become worse, or you have entirely new symptoms, you may have gotten stuck in post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Most people need help at this point in order to deal with the disorder and move back into their normal lives.
PTSD symptoms do not always occur after only a few weeks. For some people, months can pass before the tell-tale signs appear.
Risk Factors and PTSD
Anyone can develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a serious accident. But some factors make it more likely that you will progress from a “normal response” (PTS) to the disorder. These factors are:
- Other trauma earlier in life, such as abuse
- Lack of a good support system
- Having a job that increases exposure to trauma, such as for military or emergency personnel
- Inherited mental health risks, such as for anxiety or depression
- Existing mental health issues.
Researchers are working on ways to determine the importance of various risk factors.
PTSD After an Accident
In the United States, the leading cause of PTSD is vehicular accidents. Research demonstrates that around nine percent of car accident survivors get stuck in their stress responses and develop the disorder. Some aspects that are specific to a traumatic event make it more likely that a survivor will develop PTSD:
- How much the accident triggered fears of dying
- Others dying in the accident, especially loved ones
- Severe physical trauma, such as amputation, or anything that requires surgery or creates significant pain
- The length of time it takes to recover fully.
PTSD can also show up in people who were not actually in the accident, such as in family members of anyone injured or deceased, or in first responders and witnesses.
PTSD Differences between Adults and Children
Adults often reveal PTSD in three main sets of symptoms:
- They repeatedly re-experience the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks that often have physical symptoms.
- They go to great lengths to avoid situations that might even remotely remind them of the trauma, and frequently feel dead to pleasure and happiness.
- They remain on “red alert,” reacting to situations as if they are constantly in danger. This set of symptoms is known as hyperarousal and hypervigilance.
On the other hand, because children have limited abilities to process severe trauma, PTSD in children can show itself in a different set of symptoms:
- Seemingly afraid to spend time apart from the parent
- Having a regression of learned behaviors; for example, a toilet-trained child that begins having “accidents”
- Nightmares and other sleep problems
- New fears and phobias
- While playing, repeatedly acting out elements of the traumatic experience
- New, sudden aggression towards others
- Physical pain that appears to have no cause.
How Is PTSD Treated?
For adults, treatment of PTSD often involves the following:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on the trauma in order to desensitize the person
- Therapy that is family-focused
- Medication, such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicine.
For children with PTSD, play therapy and art therapy helps them unlock their feelings.