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A closer look at PTSD: Things you should know

Chelsea Jones | 5/13/2013, 10:10 a.m.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a potentially debilitating anxiety disorder. Most African Americans – even those that have a primary care physician – go undiagnosed or untreated, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

PTSD can occur after someone experiences trauma or multiple traumatic events. Trauma is a distressing event like abuse as a child, a physical or sexual assault, a major accident, a natural disaster or fire, war, or the death of a family member or friend.

The condition is not a sign of weakness. In most people, fear triggers rapid changes in the body to prepare for defense or avoidance against harm. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy mechanism meant to protect people. However, in people with PTSD, this mechanism is damaged. They may feel frightened or stressed even after the event has occurred.

PTSD has many symptoms, all of which can be grouped into three categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal symptoms, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Re-experiencing symptoms include flashbacks, frightening thoughts and bad dreams.

Avoidance symptoms involve staying away from places, events or objects that serve as reminders of the dangerous event; having trouble remembering the event; feeling guilt, depression, or worry; feeling emotionally numb; and losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past.

Feeling tense, angry outbursts, difficulty sleeping and being easily startled are all hyperarousal symptoms.

People who are diagnosed with PTSD have the following signs for at least one month: one re-experiencing symptom, three avoidance symptoms, two hyperarousal symptoms and any other symptoms that make it hard to go about daily life.

A person can get PTSD at any age. However, children and teens may exhibit different symptoms than adults.

Very young children can have symptoms of acting out the traumatic event during playtime, bedwetting – in children older than potty training age, forgetting how or being unable to talk, and being unusually clingy to a parent or another adult.

Older children and teens usually show symptoms like those seen in adults, but can also display signs of disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors; feelings of guilt for not preventing injury or deaths; and thoughts of revenge.

Traumatic occurrences are not rare. About 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women experience at least one traumatic event in life, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But not everyone who experiences trauma gets PTSD. In fact, most people don’t get the disorder.

People who live through the traumatic event, and get hurt, or see other people get hurt or killed are at a high risk. Other risk factors include having little or no support dealing with stress after the event, feeling extreme fear or helplessness, and having a history of mental illness. Responding effectively to the event despite feeling fear, receiving support from other people after the event, and positively coping with the event and learning from it can help reduce a person’s risks.

The department has estimated that each year approximately 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with PTSD, which includes 5.2 million adults. Women are more likely than men, and Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than Whites, to develop PTSD. Perhaps this is because these groups are more likely to experience trauma.