Wednesday, June 5, 2013

PTSD Awareness Month: Signs and Symptoms

     At my most recent counseling center intake, I filled out a questionnaire that had over two hundred questions asking me about my self-image, my ideas about others, any tendencies I had that are "abnormal", and how much I ate/slept/exercised/etc. By the end, I felt like I had just run a marathon. And as the product of my time and effort, the computer spat out something I already knew very well: I had post-traumatic stress disorder.

     My first really good psychologist asked me what was going on, heard me out, and then told me exactly the same thing. At one hundred ninety-nine questions fewer and more more personable, my psychologist's opinion was much easier to hear than that of the computer. However, either way, defining what criteria qualify someone as having PTSD is very difficult.

     I say all this to apologize for this post. No writing on a blog (no matter who the source is or what experiences they have had) will ever replace a real-life excellent psychologist and his or her diagnosis. However, since certain reactions are normal after a trauma event, it can be very difficult to determine when you or someone you love has PTSD.

     That's why I'm still writing. Maybe you're wondering about yourself. Maybe you're wondering about a loved one. Maybe you're just curious. No matter what your motivation, I can provide you some basic information about how PTSD can manifest itself.

     About a fourth of the way down this web page, you will find an overview of the signs and symptoms of PTSD. While I do NOT agree with everything you will find on that page, the section entitled "Signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)" and the subsequent section entitled "Symptoms of PTSD in children and adults" are very consistent with my experience and research. The reason I chose this website is that it looks most similar to the questionnaire that I took (although don't worry; this site is much shorter).

     There are three major categories of symptoms of PTSD. The first is reliving the experience. This includes, as the website says, flashbacks and nightmares. Nightmares were the reason I finally went back to counseling at the age of seventeen. I could not and would not sleep because of the intensity of the nightmares I experienced. Often, this first category is the most noticeable. It's not difficult to see when a car accident survivor has a flashback and freezes up because a bus came just a bit too close. My friends know just by looking at my face whether I've been sleeping or not.

     The second category is avoiding anything that connects to the incident. This may be avoidance of emotions, places, or people. These symptoms are very difficult to identify as PTSD because these are very natural normal trauma reactions. To return to my former example, someone who has been injured in a car accident will be very reticent to drive again. For me, I used to strongly avoid discussing topics such as family. Because of the subtlety of these signs, it can be very difficult to distinguish between normal reactions and PTSD (more on this in a few paragraphs).

     The third category is called "emotional arousal". As far as I have seen, this section is the one most constant in the fighter and least noticed by his or her loved ones. Once again, a car accident survivor may be constantly aware of his or her surroundings when on the road or may react strongly or jumpily when startled while on the road. For me, hypervigilance is the one symptom that has not drastically improved since I got out of the situation. I still am constantly aware of where everyone in the room is. I still habitually look around me as I walk. I still pay attention to where people's hands are, especially if people are upset. These are examples of typical emotional arousal.

     So, the first category is easiest to recognize from the outside. The second is difficult to distinguish between a normal reaction and a reaction magnified by PTSD. The third is often only noticed by the individual himself or herself. How does one actually determine whether someone may have PTSD or is recuperating normally from a trauma event?

     The only answer we seem to have right now is time. The generally accepted rule is that if someone has been experiencing symptoms from these three categories for longer than three months, they have PTSD. This can be a very frustrating answer because many people just want to know right now. The key is to remember that for any problem, whether it be cancer or PTSD or Alzheimer's, getting a diagnosis takes time. The plan of action I recommend the most is to see a professional. A professional is probably familiar with PTSD, and familiarity fosters recognition. That is why going to a professional the best way I know to determine whether you or a loved one has PTSD.

     Have questions about seeing a professional?

     Hold on to that thought.

Take care,


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