“PTSD can happen to anyone who has been exposed to a life-threatening event, like combat, physical violence, a car accident, a natural disaster or anyone exposed to sexual violence. First responders can also develop PTSD after being exposed to aversive aspects of traumatic events,” says Tara Gilhooly, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth). “It can happen to children, teens and adults, and it is not a sign of weakness. In many cases, individuals continue to function as if danger is present, even when they are safe.” PTSD affects 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men, but among current military members and recent veterans of both genders, the risk increases to a range of 11 to 20 percent. Besides the most well-known symptoms – nightmares, flashbacks and being easily startled – more subtle signs may include irritability, withdrawing from friends and family, losing interest in activities, having difficulty sleeping or engaging in high-risk behavior.
Doctors diagnose PTSD as exposure to a traumatic event, combined with symptoms from four categories: re-experiencing (e.g. nightmares, intrusive memories), avoiding reminders of the event, having negative changes in beliefs or feelings (fear, anger, guilt or shame), and hyper-arousal (feeling jumpy or on the lookout). Sometimes the avoidance symptoms can be obvious, while for some people they can be especially tricky to recognize, Dr. Gilhooly says. “Some people ‘over-function’ as a means of avoidance, meaning they keep their mind engaged in many activities, to keep the traumatic memories away.” That’s why milestones like retirement can increase symptoms of PTSD for some individuals. Experts recommend psychotherapy that focuses on the memory and meaning of the trauma. “Therapy helps people understand how trauma impacted their thoughts and feelings; to emotionally process the traumatic experience that helps the mind and body to recognize that memories and reminders of trauma are not actually dangerous; and to feel more comfortable participating in activities that have been avoided,” Dr. Gilhooly says.
Psychiatry at Westchester Medical Center: