William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is PTSD?
- Does everyone who has lived through something traumatic get it?
- What other kinds of things could happen after a traumatic event?
- What helps?
- Is it always necessary to take medications or can I learn to deal with this without them?
- My friends and family keep telling me to just snap out of it. How do I explain that I would if I could, but it's not that easy?
- Does the Department of Veteran Affairs offer any special treatment for PTSD?
What is PTSD?
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a diagnosis first described in 1980. While the labels of Combat Fatigue and Shell Shock had been around for many years, professionals began to recognize that traumatic events other than combat could also create similar problems.
The diagnosis of PTSD requires four elements: a severe trauma, a specific number of symptoms in each of three categories (hyperarousal, re-experiencing, and avoidance), a persistent experience of these problems, and impairment in work, love or play as a result.
Does everyone who has lived through something traumatic get it?
No. Although estimates vary, our best information indicates that more than half of all adults in the United States have experienced a trauma that fits the guidelines outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Approximately 8% of those people will develop PTSD. Among veterans the rate of PTSD is estimated to be somewhere between 14% and 33%.
There are factors that seem to be associated with higher incidence of PTSD. These include trauma at an early age, multiple trauma exposures, or experiencing trauma in close proximity to you (e.g., being beaten versus witnessing a beating).
What other kinds of things could happen after a traumatic event?
Sometimes positive things come out of trauma, for example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was a positive way for women to make meaning out of the death of a child.
Sometimes people have problems such as anxiety, depression, anger or panic attacks in response to the trauma, but do not have PTSD.
Sometimes the strategies people use to manage their symptoms create more problems. For example, drinking to excess creates problems with health and functioning and most life roles. Overwork is often considered more acceptable, but generally creates conflict in families. Increasingly avoiding facing anxiety-provoking situations causes people's lives to become smaller and smaller. There is increasing evidence of a link between some types of trauma and later physical health problems.
If you've been unable to manage these symptoms on your own through your usual social support system, you may want to talk with your medical provider about seeing a mental health provider to work together on strategies for moving beyond your negative experiences. You and your mental health provider can talk about what approaches would best match your situation.
There are medications available that can reduce the core symptoms of PTSD. Medications are also effective to treat common comorbid conditions (conditions that occur at the same time as the PTSD) like depression.
Sometimes medications that improve sleep, reduce anxiety or reduce depression are helpful in settling the distress enough to benefit from counseling and psychotherapy.
Is it always necessary to take medications or can I learn to deal with this without them?
Medications are used not just to reduce the suffering PTSD symptoms can cause, but also to reduce symptoms that make it difficult to learn the new skills and habits that can help you better live with PTSD.
The decision to start or stop medications is one you should discuss with your treatment providers. Because PTSD is a disorder that tends to flare up from time to time, it can be tempting to stop taking medications during the calmer times, only to find that the flare-up's are harder to manage without medications.
However, many people do find that by using the skills they learn in treatment (for example, stress reduction, sleep improvement, riding out distressing feelings, ways to develop and keep supportive relationships) they can manage their PTSD symptoms effectively without taking medication.
My friends and family keep telling me to just snap out of it. How do I explain that I would if I could, but it's not that easy?
This is a tough one. Friends and family are often confused because no one can just look at you and see you have PTSD. Because most people have gone through stressful events, they may assume that everyone experiences stressful events the same way, or they may not know the extent of what you have experienced.
Friends and family members may find it helpful to learn more about PTSD either on this website or through reading books or articles about PTSD. Your treatment team may also be willing to talk with your family about PTSD and what is involved in your treatment.
You may want to involve family and friends more in your treatment, for example, by talking with them about the homework you are given in treatment, or by talking with them about strategies they may not know you've been using to manage symptoms. They are often more supportive when they learn how hard you are working at managing your symptoms.
Does the Department of Veteran Affairs offer any special treatment for PTSD?
VA Medical Centers and outpatient clinics are located throughout the U.S. For the one nearest you, check http://www.va.gov, check your local phone directory in the government listings section, or call the VA Regional Office at 1-800-9827-1000. Many VA Medical Centers have staff members specialized in the treatment of trauma.
At the Madison VA, the Rockford Outpatient Clinic, and some other surrounding VA outpatient clinics, special treatments for PTSD are offered either in person or via video-conferencing. For information call 608-280-7084.
If you are to some extent disabled by these problems, and the problems are a result of trauma you experienced while on active duty, you may want to consider applying for a VA Disability. You can discuss this possibility with a representative from your local veteran's organization, your county Veterans Service Officer, or the VA Regional Office at 1-800-827-1000.