A Guide to PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a condition of persistent mental or emotional stress triggered after witnessing or experiencing a singular or series of life-threatening or traumatic events. It can happen to anyone based on life experiences or events, and it often has ripple effects in families and communities.

Many of our military veterans are coping with symptoms of PTSD and struggling to readjust to life outside of the military. The conflict they endured – typically during times of war – often left them face-to-face with their own mortality and that of their fellow comrades.   

Joseph House serves veterans suffering from addition through treatment and recovery programs designed to promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles and reintegration into the community. Identifying, understanding and supporting veterans with PTSD is a critical component of the work that we do.

We’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions we receive about PTSD. Use our answers as a guide to better understand what a veteran may be experiencing in civilian life and how you can possibly help.

What kind of events can trigger PTSD?

Any variety of circumstances or events can cause a person to develop PTSD — experiencing a natural disaster; a car accident; a violent personal assault, such as a sexual assault, mugging or robbery; prolonged abuse; or witnessing a violent act.

Military personnel actively deployed in military combat experience PTSD at a far greater rate than the general population.  

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

There is no “typical” case of PTSD; its mood states can range from depression to anger to anxiety. It also can be exhibited through a range of behaviors, from outwardly reckless to withdrawn and reclusive. While PTSD develops differently in each person, four common symptoms include:

  1. Re-experiencing or intrusion
    Someone with PTSD re-lives, has dreams about or dwells heavily on the events or circumstances in which they experienced trauma.
  2. Hyperarousal or over-reacting to situations
    Someone with PTSD might feel “keyed up” or jittery, like they always must be on alert for danger. This behavior can trigger sudden anger or irritation.
  3. Changes in beliefs
    Someone with PTSD may have a distinct, often negative, shift in their overall outlook on their personal life or the world at large.
  4. Avoidance
    Someone with PTSD may go out of their way to avoid situations that could trigger re-experiencing or reminders of the trauma, such as public events with large crowds or overly-stimulating situations like a sporting event. Another behavior attributed to avoidance is relying on substances like alcohol and/or drugs as a coping mechanism to “get them through” the day or night.

How prevalent is PTSD?

According to the National Center for PTSD, four percent of men and 10 percent of women will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime; however, many people may develop PTSD that goes undiagnosed.

The number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD varies by service area:

  • Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom
    • Anywhere between 11 and 20 percent in a given year
  • Gulf War (Desert Storm)
    • 12 percent in a given year
  • Vietnam War
    • 15 percent (at time of National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study in late 1980s)
    • 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime

Military sexual trauma (MST) also can lead to the development of PTSD in veterans. MST is any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs during one’s service in the military and can happen to men and women during peacetime, training or war. The following statistics have been reported among veterans who use VA health care:

  • 23 percent of women veterans reported sexual assault while in the military
  • 55 percent of women and 38 percent of men reported to have experienced sexual harassment while in the military

Why is there likely a large population of Americans (and American veterans) with undiagnosed PTSD?

While symptoms of PTSD can develop in the hours or days following a traumatic event, sometimes symptoms will not surface for months or even years following an event. For veterans, PTSD can surface years after deployment and discharge from the military.  

A confirmed diagnosis of PTSD requires health care professionals to verify that all four symptoms are present, last at least a month and cause significant distress or problems with day-to-day functioning. Because there is no biological test, an individual is required to visit a health care professional on a regular basis and be honest and communicative about changes in health and overall well-being.

Additionally, the stigma of mental illness often is considered the biggest barrier to mental health. Fear of being stereotyped as crazy, dangerous, unpredictable or incompetent often leads to silence. The traumatic experience also may be so difficult to talk about that the individual doesn’t even bring it up.

What are common treatment solutions for PTSD?

PTSD can be treated through a range of solutions, from trauma-focused psychotherapies to prescribed medication (such as anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication). While all treatments are intended to improve symptoms, teach coping skills and restore self-esteem, no one treatment method is right for everyone. Learn more about common treatment solutions for PTSD at ptsd.va.gov.

How is PTSD related to drug use?

Those who are experiencing PTSD may start to rely on substances to artificially numb or postpone feelings of discomfort or depression, a behavior usually attributed to the “avoidance” symptom.

While prescription drugs often are used in the treatment of PTSD, it is important that they only be used as directed under the supervision and counsel of a health care professional. Abusing medication can be harmful and lead to other long-term issues and destructive behaviors.

What should someone do if they think they’ve developed PTSD?

It’s normal to have upsetting or confusing thoughts after a traumatic event. If the issues persist beyond a month and emulate the four symptoms of PTSD, schedule an appointment with a health care professional. An initial evaluation can be informative and pave the way for next steps.

What should I do if a veteran in my life starts to display symptoms of PTSD?

Family members and friends play critical roles in a veteran’s life. You don’t have to be a mental health professional to support a veteran. Visit, listen, share a meal or just be present. Engage in healthy activities like physical exercise or a hobby you both enjoy. Explore the veteran resources available to them and encourage your loved one to talk with other veterans who also may have experienced similar trauma. Stand by their side, be their champion and encourage them to seek professional help.

Joseph House’s addiction treatment services help veterans for whom PTSD has led to the destructive behaviors of alcohol and/or drug abuse. Our individualized treatment plans take into consideration the many experiences a veteran has had so that, together, we can achieve more effective outcomes.

If you want to learn more about Joseph House’s addiction treatment services, visit josephhouse.com or call 513-241-2965.