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February 2010 - Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Referral Corner: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The Haitian earthquake on Jan. 12 caused immediate, obvious trauma. At press time, help was still trickling in to aid survivors, while the rest of the world contemplated the gargantuan task of rebuilding the fragile nation. In addition to the massive need for food, water and shelter, the Haitian people also will need assistance in dealing with the psychological impact of this disaster. At the same time, those of us watching the news coverage also are at risk for vicarious emotional trauma.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused when someone experiences or witnesses an event and feels intense fear or helplessness. Symptoms often may not appear immediately after the event, but often surface weeks and months afterwards, particularly when other things in the person’s life have calmed. PTSD often manifests in intrusive memories, avoidance or emotional numbing, and increased emotional arousal. For example, a person suffering from PTSD may report flashbacks or worrisome dreams, may isolate herself from others, or may report trouble sleeping and overwhelming guilt or shame. It is also common for these symptoms to come and go, being triggered by similar events reported on the news or during times of high stress.

Those watching intense news coverage of tragic events, as well as mental health professionals who listen to traumatic stories from their clients, also may be at risk for “vicarious trauma” or secondary traumatic stress. This diagnosis goes beyond deep empathy for the plight of another, to the degree that the person actually feels as though he is experiencing the trauma firsthand.

A PTSD diagnosis is not an automatic conclusion for those who have experienced significant trauma. Risk factors for developing the disorder include experiencing a particularly severe trauma that was long-lasting, having a pre-existing mental health condition, lacking a good support network, having experienced abuse or neglect as a child, and having a first-degree relative with PTSD or depression. PTSD may be treated with medication and/or psychotherapy. You and your doctor may find that certain antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs may relieve the anxiety and depression associated with PTSD. A psychotherapist may use cognitive-behavioral techniques to help the client identify negative thought patterns that exacerbate symptoms, and group counseling can provide the opportunity to connect with others facing similar diagnoses.

Information culled from www.mayoclinic.com

-Edited by Stacy Notaras Murphy

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