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Can anyone get post-traumatic stress disorder?

Elizabeth Turk-Karan, Ph.D., Penn Medicine Center for the Treatment, Study of Anxiety, For Philly.com

Updated: Monday, July 18, 2016, 2:48 PM

Anyone can experience a traumatic experience during their lifetime such as a serious car accident, a physical attack, a sexual molestation, or a natural disaster. Fortunately, not everyone who has been exposed to a trauma develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mental health professionals define “trauma” as an event in which a person experiences or witnesses a threat of death or serious injury. It is estimated that 55 percent of people in the U.S. experience at least one trauma in their lifetime. However, lifetime rates of PTSD range from 8-14 percent so the majority of individuals who experience a trauma do not develop PTSD.

Why do some people develop PTSD and others don’t?

PTSD is a disorder that is characterized by a significant change in mood and behavior as a result of a traumatic event. When individuals experience a life-threatening event, their attitudes, emotions and behaviors change – at least temporarily. If you were held up at gunpoint, and feared for your safety, you may begin to view the world as an extremely dangerous place and behave differently. You may avoid places similar to where you were traumatized as well as people who resembled your assailant even though they are not dangerous. This excessive avoidance may restrict your ability to function.

People who develop PTSD have symptoms, which are characterized not only by avoidance, but also by intrusive thoughts, increased arousal, and mood changes. They may startle easily and/or be constantly vigilant for similar dangers. Sleeping problems, nightmares, and feeling “cut off” from other people are also common complaints.

The vast majority of traumatized individuals have PTSD-like symptoms shortly after the event that naturally resolves within three months. PTSD is diagnosed if the anxiety and behavior changes persist longer than one month. These symptoms can continue for decades after the traumatic experience.

Individuals with PTSD are trying to avoid thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind them of the trauma. They fear that they are going to experience the trauma again and do whatever they can to avoid this from happening. Examples include a Vietnam veteran who is still terrified when he hears a helicopter, a rape victim who is afraid to talk to men, or an earthquake survivor who refuses to return to California. But because they avoid these thoughts, feelings and situations, their symptoms persist, their lives become restricted, and they do not recognize what is realistically safe and what is not.

Prolonged Exposure (PE) is a treatment for PTSD that has been studied for over 30 years and has been shown to significantly reduce PTSD symptoms in the majority of patients with PTSD. Many patients recover from the disorder. PE consists of gently helping individuals with PTSD approach the very thoughts, feelings and situations that they fear. With repeated exposures, a person learns to stop fearing the reminders of the trauma.

The Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) at the University of Pennsylvania is known internationally for treating PTSD, studying PTSD, and training therapists in PE. If you would like treatment for PTSD or another type of anxiety problem, please contact the CTSA at 215-746-3327.

Elizabeth Turk-Karan, Ph.D., Penn Medicine Center for the Treatment, Study of Anxiety, For Philly.com

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