Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)(1) is the most common diagnostic category used to describe symptoms arising from emotionally traumatic experience(s). This disorder presumes that the person experienced a traumatic event involving actual or threatened death or injury to themselves or others -- and where they felt fear, helplessness or horror. Three additional symptom clusters, if they persist for more than a month after the traumatic event and cause clinically significant distress or impairment, make up the diagnostic criteria.
The three main symptom clusters in PTSD are: Intrusions, such as flashbacks or nightmares, where the traumatic event is re-experienced. Avoidance, when the person tries to reduce exposure to people or things that might bring on their intrusive symptoms. And Hyperarousal, meaning physiologic signs of increased arousal, such as hyper vigilance or increased startle response. The actual symptoms used in the United States are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The most current version of the DSM is the Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), published in June 2000 by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV-TR; 2000). Similar symptoms (from the 1994 edition, DSM-IV) are summarized below. If a traumatic event occurred recently, then an individual might suffer from Acute Stress Disorder)(2) , which involves symptoms similar to PTSD but without the one month duration requirement. An alternative classification system, the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-10, uses a comparable but somewhat different symptom summary.
Trauma symptoms are probably adaptive, and originally evolved to help us recognize and avoid other dangerous situations quickly -- before it was too late. Sometimes these symptoms resolve within a few days or weeks of a disturbing experience: Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It is when many symptoms persist for weeks or months, or when they are extreme, that professional help may be indicated. On the other hand, if symptoms persist for several months without treatment, then avoidance can become the best available method to cope with the trauma -- and this strategy interferes with seeking professional help. Postponing needed intervention for a year or more, and allowing avoidance defenses to develop, could make this work much more difficult.
While PTSD is the "prototypical" traumatic disorder, some people -- or some stressors -- present variations on this theme. Depression, Anxiety, and Dissociation are three other disorders that may sometimes arise after traumatic experiences, but Somatoform disorders are also seen in some populations. The differences may result from how the particular individual deals with or expresses their stress, and probably depend some on the individual's subjective interpretation of the stress as well. Individual differences affect both the severity and the type of symptoms experienced. For example, almost everyone dissociates to some degree. In fact, dissociation may reflect a struggle for dominance between our left and right hemispheres.
Dissociation (3) is a fairly normal coping strategy in the face of overwhelming stress, but extreme dissociative tendencies may be pathological. At this extreme, Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID (formerly called MPD), is a condition requiring specialized treatment. Using Taxometric Analysis, Niels Waller and colleagues identified a separate 'taxon' of pathological dissociation useful in screening suspected dissociative disorders. This clinicially-important probability score is calculated from a subset of items in the DES, or Dissociative Experiences Scale. (See ISSD website.)
PTSD is officially classified as an anxiety disorder, but some have argued that it fits more closely with the dissociative disorders, and others feel it belongs by itself. There has also been discussion over differential diagnoses for simple vs. chronic traumatic histories (such as Complex PTSD, or the proposed DESNOS diagnosis: for Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified). Recent work suggests that DESNOS may be more frequent among individuals whose subsequent adult traumas complicate chronic or unresolved childhood traumatic experiences, and that DESNOS has important implications for treatment. The proposed DESNOS disorder (not yet contained in the DSM) is discussed in articles by Bessel van der Kolk, Julian Ford. Classification issues such as these will probably continue through field trials for the DSM-V (scheduled to be released in 2007).
We create meaning out of the context in which events occur. Consequently, there is always a strong subjective component in people's responses to traumatic events. This can be seen most clearly in disasters, where a broad cross-section of the population is exposed to objectively the same traumatic experience. Some of the individual differences in susceptibility to PTSD following trauma probably stem from temperament, others from prior history and its effect on this subjectivity.
In the "purest" sense, trauma involves exposure to a life-threatening experience. This fits with its phylogenetically old roots in life-or-death issues of survival, and with the involvement of older brain structures (e.g., reptilian or limbic system) in responses to stress and terror. Yet, many individuals exposed to violations by people or institutions they must depend on or trust also show PTSD-like symptoms -- even if their abuse was not directly life-threatening. Although the mechanisms of this connection to traumatic symptoms are not well understood, it appears that betrayal by someone on whom you depend for survival (as a child on a parent) may produce consequences similar to those from more obviously life-threatening traumas. Examples include some physically or sexually abused children as well as Vietnam veterans. Experience of betrayal trauma may increase the likelihood of psychogenic amnesia, as compared to fear-based trauma. Forgetting may help maintain necessary attachments (e.g., during childhood), improving chances for survival; if so, this has far-reaching theoretical implications for psychological research. Of course, some traumas include elements of betrayal and fear; perhaps all involve feelings of helplessness.
As you might expect, risk for PTSD increases with exposure to trauma. In other words, chronic or multiple traumatic experiences are likely to be more difficult to overcome than most single instances. PTSD is also more likely if passive defenses, such as freezing or dissociation, are used rather than active defenses such as fight or flight. Epidemiological estimates suggest that the incidence and lifetime prevalence rates of PTSD in the general population are around 1% and 9%, respectively. But these levels increase markedly for young adults living in inner cities (23%), and for wounded combat veterans (20%). There is also evidence that early traumatic experiences (e.g., during childhood), especially if these are prolonged or repeated, may increase the risk of developing PTSD after traumatic exposure as an adult. This may result from state-dependent learning, where previous responses to a terrifying event are repeated even though more appropriate responses (i.e., active defenses) may now be possible. Animal studies (see particularly work by Robert Sapolsky and by Joseph LeDoux) suggest the possibility of permanent physical damage (including shrinkage) to the hippocampus and changes in the amygdala when severe or chronic trauma (and its symptoms) persists; unfortunately, there is no easy way to compare the relative types or degree of trauma across species.
There's no clear evidence that susceptibility to PTSD varies for members of different ethnic or minority groups (given a traumatic experience). But individual differences almost certainly play some role. For example, more introverted or shy individuals may have stronger emotional reactions to upsetting events, and younger children will have less ability to predict, avoid, make sense of, or to actively defend against, such experiences.
Children, especially young ones, are apt to see things quite differently than adults; it can be very easy for a stressed-out parent to overlook or fail to recognize a child's fears about such events. If you take time to listen receptively, they'll probably tell you.
One additional aspect of traumatic exposure affects primarily the workers who help trauma and disaster victims. These people include psychologists and other mental health professionals, but also the emergency workers -- EMTs, physicians, fire, police, search & rescue, etc. -- exposed to an overdose of victim suffering. These professions are at-risk for secondary traumatization. Known by various names -- compassion fatigue, secondary or vicarious traumatization, and "burn out", the symptoms here are usually less severe than PTSD-like symptoms experienced by direct victims in a disaster. But they can affect the livelihoods and careers of those with considerable training and experience working with disaster and trauma survivors. Secondary trauma might also be seen in jurors, for example, or in other individuals exposed to traumatic material (e.g., news photographers); the risk also increases when traumatic exposures are unexpected, or among those without adequate preparation. Risk for secondary trauma is not limited to professions where such exposures are commonplace.
Expect this, if you work with or are exposed to the stories of many disaster/trauma victims, and take steps to protect yourself at the first sign of trouble. Basically, there are three risk factors for secondary traumatization: 1) exposure to the stories (or images) of multiple disaster victims, 2) your empathic sensitivity to their suffering, and 3) any unresolved emotional issues that relate (affectively or symbolically) to the suffering seen.
Aside from using whatever stress reduction, stress mangement, or relaxation, measures work best for you, there's little an emergency or disaster worker can do about the first two risk factors, but it does help reduce the risk for vicarious traumatization if you know your own personal vulnerabilities and unresolved upsetting issues. Those are the cases best referred to your colleagues, when possible.
For many exposed individuals, especially those in the at-risk professions, participation in well-run CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) groups may also help resolve upsetting experiences more quickly, as long as participation is voluntary (not mandatory). Group debriefings may be adequate for most, but brief individual sessions might be needed for 10 - 20% of those suffering the most severe exposures.
(1)The three main symptom clusters in PTSD are: Intrusions, such as flashbacks or nightmares, where the traumatic event is re-experienced. Avoidance, when the person tries to reduce exposure to people or things that might bring on their intrusive symptoms. And Hyperarousal, meaning physiologic signs of increased arousal, such as hyper vigilance or increased startle response. The actual symptoms used in the United States are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The most current version of the DSM is the Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), published in June 2000 by the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV-TR; 2000). Similar symptoms (from the 1994 edition, DSM-IV) are summarized here and here. If a traumatic event occurred recently, then an individual might suffer from Acute Stress Disorder, which involves symptoms similar to PTSD but without the one month duration requirement. An alternative classification system, the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-10, uses a comparable but somewhat different symptom summary.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying event. Often, people with PTSD have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. PTSD, once referred to as shell shock or battle fatigue, was first brought to public attention by war veterans, but it can result from any number of traumatic incidents. These include kidnapping, serious accidents such as car or train wrecks, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, violent attacks such as a mugging, rape, or torture, or being held captive. The event that triggers it may be something that threatened the person's life or the life of someone close to him or her. Or it could be something witnessed, such as mass destruction after a plane crash. Whatever the source of the problem, some people with PTSD repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day. They may also experience sleep problems, depression, feeling detached or numb, or being easily startled. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate. They may feel irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent. Seeing things that remind them of the incident may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoid certain places or situations that bring back those memories. Anniversaries of the event are often very difficult.
PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or anxiety. Symptoms may be mild or severe--people may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. In severe cases they may have trouble working or socializing. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was initiated by a person--such as a rape, as opposed to a flood.
Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A flashback may make the person lose touch with reality and reenact the event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.
Not every traumatized person gets full-blown PTSD, or experiences PTSD at all. PTSD is diagnosed only if the symptoms last more than a month. In those who do have PTSD, symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the trauma, and the course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, others have symptoms that last much longer. In some cases, the condition may be chronic. Occasionally, the illness doesn't show up until years after the traumatic event.
Specific Symptoms of this Disorder:
The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others and the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in one (or more) of the following ways:
(2)Diagnostic criteria for 308.3 Acute Stress Disorder
A. The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:
(1) the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others
(2) the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror
B. Either while experiencing or after experiencing the distressing event, the individual has three (or more) of the following dissociative symptoms:
(1) a subjective sense of numbing, detachment, or absence of emotional responsiveness
(2) a reduction in awareness of his or her surroundings (e.g., "being in a daze")
(5) dissociative amnesia (i.e., inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma)
C. The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in at least one of the following ways: recurrent images, thoughts, dreams, illusions, flashback episodes, or a sense of reliving the experience; or distress on exposure to reminders of the traumatic event.
D. Marked avoidance of stimuli that arouse recollections of the trauma (e.g., thoughts, feelings, conversations, activities, places, people).
E. Marked symptoms of anxiety or increased arousal (e.g., difficulty sleeping, irritability, poor concentration, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, motor restlessness).
F. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning or impairs the individual's ability to pursue some necessary task, such as obtaining necessary assistance or mobilizing personal resources by telling family members about the traumatic experience.
G. The disturbance lasts for a minimum of 2 days and a maximum of 4 weeks and occurs within 4 weeks of the traumatic event.
H. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition, is not better accounted for by Brief Psychotic Disorder, and is not merely an exacerbation of a preexisting Axis I or Axis II disorder.
(3)Diagnostic criteria for 300.14 Dissociative Identity Disorder
A. The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and self).
B. At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the person's behavior.
C. Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
D. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during Alcohol Intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures). Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
Reprinted with permission from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth Edition. Copyright 1994 American Psychiatric Association