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Degree, Duration of Symptoms Identify PTSD

Army standardizes PTSD care
Soldiers often have delayed reactions to traumatic events that may take years to manifest. Pictured here are soldiers on an operation in Dora, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Elisha Dawkins)

Dr. James Bender is a former Army psychologist who deployed to Iraq as the brigade psychologist for the 1st Cavalry Division 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas. In his current position, Bender is a subject matter expert for the PTSD Clinical Pathways Program, which is developing a pathway to treat PTSD that will be implemented across the Defense Department.

It’s easy to confuse post-traumatic stress (PTS) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to sharing similar names, there’s considerable overlap in symptoms between the two conditions. Both PTS and PTSD are associated with feeling fearful and/or nervous, avoiding the activity or place associated with the traumatic event, and nightmares. However, there are significant differences in symptom intensity, duration and treatment.

Post-traumatic Stress

PTS is a common, normal and often adaptive response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. Common occurrences, like car accidents, can trigger PTS, as well as more unusual events, like military combat or kidnapping. Almost everyone who experiences a scary situation will show at least a few signs of post-traumatic stress. That’s because our brains are hard-wired to tell our bodies to tense our muscles, breathe faster and pump more blood when we’re under intense stress. This is the “fight-or-flight” response that prepares your body to deal with a threat or challenge in the environment by pumping more blood and oxygen to your muscles, and shuts down non-critical functions, like digestion. This fight-or-flight response is a normal reflex during and sometimes even after a traumatic event, which is why PTS is considered a normal reaction and not a mental illness.

PTS Symptoms and Behaviors

If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress, your heart may race, hands shake, you may sweat or feel afraid and nervous. After the stressful event, you might avoid or be leery of engaging in that activity again, you may have a bad dream about the event you just experienced, or you may feel nervous in a situation that reminds you of the unpleasant event. Although they can be momentarily intense, symptoms of PTS usually subside a few days after the event and won’t cause any prolonged meaningful interference with your life. One positive outcome of experiencing PTS may be that you behave more carefully in a future potentially dangerous situation.

PTS Treatment

Since post-traumatic stress is not a mental disorder, treatment is not required as the symptoms will likely improve or subside on their own within a month. However, you should talk to a health care provider if you feel troubled by your symptoms; if they’re interfering with your work, school or relationships; or if you’re engaging in reckless behavior such as drinking or using drugs to cope with symptoms.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a clinically-diagnosed condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the recognized authority on mental illness diagnoses. The fifth revision, released May 2013, includes the latest diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder.

Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a situation that involves the possibility of death or serious injury, or who learns a close family member or friend experienced a traumatic event, can develop posttraumatic stress disorder, although most people don’t. It’s still not completely understood why some people who are exposed to traumatic situations develop PTSD while others don’t.

PTSD Symptoms and Behaviors

Common symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder include reliving a traumatic event through nightmares, flashbacks or constantly thinking about it. You might avoid situations or people that remind you of the event, have only negative thoughts or emotions, and constantly feel jittery, nervous or “on edge.” Although some of these symptoms sound similar to PTS, the difference is the duration and intensity. Symptoms that continue for more than one month, are severe and interfere with your daily functioning are characteristic of PTSD.

Behaviors that indicate professional intervention is needed may include drinking or smoking more than usual as attempts to reduce anxiety or anger, and aggressive driving. Service members who have experienced combat can be especially nervous driving under overpasses and past litter on the roadside, behavior learned in Iraq and Afghanistan where insurgents hide improvised explosive devices in garbage and use overpasses to shoot at vehicles. Being wary of crowds; showing reluctance to go to movie theaters, crowded stores, or nightclubs; avoiding news that addresses overseas combat or getting angry at the reports are further indicators that help may be needed.

PTSD Treatments

Certain medications and therapies are widely accepted by health care providers as effective treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Sertraline and Paroxetine are two medications the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for treatment. Trauma-focused psychotherapy techniques, such as prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy, have also been proven to be effective and widely used.

Overall key points:

  • PTS symptoms are common after deployment and may improve or resolve within a month. PTSD symptoms are more severe, persistent, interfere with daily functioning, and last for more than a month.
  • Most people with PTS do not develop PTSD. You can develop PTSD without first having PTS.
  • PTS requires no medical intervention, unless symptoms are severe. However, you may benefit from psychological health care support to prevent symptoms from worsening.
  • PTSD is a medically-diagnosed condition and should be treated by a clinician.

To learn more about PTSD:

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Comments (4)

  • It is a brief moment of respite and feeling worthy and loved knowing that professionals are hard at work learning symptoms of PTSD. The question, that remains unanswered is "what did we do wrong?" But non-the-less, Thanks.
  • @Alejandro, Thank you for taking a moment to share your thoughts.
  • Like the late great George Colin said, we don't need the disorder in PTSD. Disorder has a connotation that something is wrong with us. I think the WWI & WWII term of shell shock is a more accurate description. I could go on, but I don't want to hijack this forum. Thanks for listening
  • @Law, We appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this.

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This page was last updated on: May 1, 2017.