What is PTSD?

There has been a lot of press in recent years about the many post-9/11 veterans coming home with PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  What many people don’t realize is that you don’t have to survive a war to be affected by this condition.  Anyone, including children and teenagers, who experiences a traumatic event can develop the disorder and many who do will require treatment to overcome its challenges and obstacles.  When left undiagnosed or untreated, PTSD can cause long-term problems that negatively impact quality of life.  Because of the potential for lasting consequences, it is important for parents to understand what can cause the disorder, what symptoms teenagers with PTSD often experience, and how to get help for the disorder.

When the Worst Happens

There is no question that traumatic events impact everyone who is touched by them.  Survivors and witnesses of trauma often experience a period of extraordinary stress and undergo a period of extreme emotional response following the event.  Many of those touched by trauma will have trouble sleeping, experience difficulty concentrating, and develop anxiety specific to the circumstances of the event.  These are all normal reactions experienced when we are exposed to trauma.

But these normal post-traumatic responses are generally worst immediately following the event and then begin to fade and dissipate in the days and weeks that follow.  In some cases, however, these responses do not fade but intensify instead lasting for months or even longer.  This is when our response shifts from a normal reaction to a diagnosable disorder.

Cause and Effect

Although PTSD is directly caused by experiencing some form of trauma, there is not a specific list of traumatic events or circumstances that cause PTSD.  It can result from catastrophic events that impact thousands like an earthquake to individually impacting events like sexual abuse. However, experiencing trauma, no matter how catastrophic, does not guarantee that any specific individual will develop PTSD.  The important thing to understand is that anyone who experiences trauma including those who are directly involved, those who are peripherally involved, and even those who simply witness the event, can develop this condition, but not everyone will. Even if someone has experienced multiple “smaller” incidences of traumatic events, they can end up with PTSD symptoms that are very disruptive and interfering.

Why One and Not the Other

There is no clear distinction between people who develop PTSD and people who don’t.  There are some theories that PTSD stems from a disruption in the fight or flight response, the physiological response we experience when faced with fear, danger, or trauma.  This is the biological process responsible for the surge of adrenaline we get when someone almost hits us while changing lanes or that makes it possible for a mother to lift a car off of her child.  It is one of our base survival responses and is triggered during traumatic experiences.  The thinking is that for some people, the exposure to trauma changes the way this biological process works, creating a new, very sensitive trigger that is directly correlated to the traumatic event.   This new trigger sets off the fight or flight reaction outside of the normal parameters which creates the anxiety, fear, flashbacks, and other symptoms associated with PTSD.

If you are concerned that your teen may be suffering from PTSD, schedule an appointment with a mental health practitioner to have them evaluated.  For many people, PTSD does not resolve on its own or get better over time which is why getting help is the best path to recovery.

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