Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can occur following a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults. PTSD can also result from simply being exposed to a danger or threat for an extended period of time. People with PTSD often suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and feeling emotionally numb.
This section defines PTSD in detail, describes the warning signs and symptoms and gives suggestions as to where you can get help if you suspect you are suffering from PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is PTSD?

PTSD is marked by clear physical and psychological symptoms such as nightmares, anxiety, memory and cognition problems, and other physical and mental health issues. The disorder is also associated with difficulties in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

While PTSD is commonly associated with military personnel who have undertaken active service, the disorder is common - about two thirds of New Zealanders will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives that has the potential to develop into PTSD.

In addition to traumas commonly faced by the general community such as car accidents and assaults, military personnel can be exposed to a number of traumatic events during the course of their service. This places them at greater risk of developing PTSD than the general population. 

What to look for

Four things to look out for:

Reliving through unwanted and recurring memories, flashbacks or vivid nightmares. You might get really upset when you’re reminded of an event, or have intense physical reactions like sweating, racing heart, or rapid or irregular breathing similar to a panic attack.

Over alertness, always feeling on edge, you might have trouble sleeping or concentrating, feel irritable or short-tempered, become easily startled, or feel like you’re always on the lookout for signs of danger.

Avoiding any activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event.

You might feel flat, numb, afraid, or angry a lot of the time, have unrealistic expectations of yourself or other people, lose interest in day to day activities like work or playing with your kids, or feel cut off from your family and friends.

These symptoms can significantly impair a person's daily life. If you (or a friend or loved one) are experiencing these feelings or behaviours, then you need to take steps to address the problem.

It is important to remember that PTSD is common and can be treated, even if you’ve had it for a very long time. 

Impact

PTSD can affect every part of your life, and you may not even be aware of it. Even when people become aware of the problem, it can take a while before they notice how the people around them are being affected too.

Living with or loving someone who has PTSD can be difficult. People with PTSD often avoid social situations, feel detached, and have trouble expressing their emotions. As a result, they might be less affectionate or withdrawn and refuse to go on social outings or to family get togethers. They may also show less interest in intimacy or parenting children.

People with PTSD can also be more irritable and jumpy. Family members often talk about ‘walking on eggshells’ and being afraid of an outburst.  Family violence can be a problem for families of loved ones with PTSD.

Research has shown that a veteran’s PTSD can also affect their family members’ mental health. Partners can experience anxiety, depression, social isolation and feelings of hopelessness, while younger children can develop behaviour problems such as acting out at school and adult children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population. It is therefore important to seek support and get your PTSD treated as early as possible to minimise its impact on the whole family.

PTSD in later years

Many military personnel first develop PTSD years after their service; while others might find their existing PTSD gets worse as they age. There are a number of reasons for this.

  • The distraction of work and raising children has gone.
  • The increased free time of retirement makes it easier to get into bad habits, like drinking too much.
  • Strategies that used to help you cope with stress aren’t working any more or are taking their toll. For example, you might not be able to drink enough to block out feelings.

The interaction between physical and mental health can also lead to PTSD getting worse with age. Over time, PTSD can have a negative effect on our physical health, and in turn, having to deal with more and more physical health issues as we get older can make us feel less able to cope. A small proportion of veterans will develop dementia as they age, which can result in unwanted memories of traumatic events becoming more frequent.

It is important to remember that PTSD can be treated, even if you’ve had it for a very long time. 

What can I do about it?

PTSD is one of those things that doesn’t really go away on its own. So if you recognise that you might be affected, it is best to seek out the right kind of help.

A doctor is always a good place to start, as he or she can make referrals for specialists, and support your efforts with medications if necessary.

Treatments often include both psychological treatment and medication. It’s generally best to start with psychological treatment rather than medication as the first and only solution, although your doctor may prescribe medication to help you manage some of the feelings associated with your PTSD.

The most effective treatment for PTSD is trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy. This approach recognises that the way we think and act affects the way we feel. With the help of a therapist or counsellor, you will learn:

  • Ways to help digest and confront painful memories, thoughts and images so they don’t continue to distress you.
  • Strategies to help you get back into activities or visit places that you have avoided since the trauma because it has been too distressing.
  • Tools to help you relax when you start getting too anxious or wound up.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could help you with what you are experiencing, so it is good to remember that PTSD is common, and the professionals and specialists who deal with it really do know how to help.