PTSD, What is it?

I was recently told, by a journalist, with no credentials related to mental health, that I have PTSD. He had mistakenly and ignorantly diagnosed me based on his lay men knowledge. He assumed that because I have experienced trauma and deal with depression and anxiety that I MUST have PTSD. As I tried to explain to him the differences in diagnoses I realized that too often mental health condition terms get used incorrectly and so casually that some people think they understand, but they don’t.

I could, and will, write an entire post on the how language impacts the stigma related to mental health, but right now I am just going to focus on educating about what PTSD really is.

PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a condition that can be diagnosed at any age and it is listed under Trauma- and Stressor- related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). While it can be diagnosed in children under 6, I am going to focus on how it manifests in those 6 years and older (including adults). I urge you to seek professional help if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health and want you to understand the purpose of this post is general education and awareness and should NOT be used to make assumptions about diagnosis.

This first criteria that must be met is experiencing a traumatic event that involves death, potential death severe injury, or violence. This can be an event that happens directly to the person, was witnessed by the person, or occurs vicariously.

While I have met this criteria it does not mean that I will automatically develop PTSD.

The next criteria is that the individual has intrusive symptoms related to the event. This means they may repeatedly have undesirable memories of the event, flashbacks (moments in which they feel as if the event is occurring again/still), or distress triggered by a symbolic cue linked to the event (this distress could be mental or physical). There must also be continued attempts to avoid triggers and or intrusive symptoms.

The next criteria is negative changes in the way the person thinks or their feelings. Some of the ways this is seen is through self-blaming for the event, inability to remember details from the event, constant negative feelings, lack of desire to do things or inability or difficulty with relationships.

The final criteria is considerable changes in behavior around the event. This may look like becoming aggressive, self-harming, participating in risky behaviors, hypervigilance, easily startled, difficulty concentrating, and or troubles related to sleep.

Now it is important to understand that this is not a short-term experience. Acute Stress Disorder is a similar, but brief condition (that I have experienced first hand). PTSD is persistent, lasting more than a month, and significantly impacts the persons ability to function in important areas of life such as socially.

The other thing to remember is that each individual with PTSD is an individual and their experiences will vary. It presents differently in my friend with medical trauma then my friend who is a domestic violence survivor and her differently then my friend who survived a sexual assault, and she differs from my first responder friends, and each veteran friend experiences it differently too.

Those with PTSD can benefit from several different sources of support including counseling. I cannot encourage you enough- if you are effected by PTSD, seek support. Help seeking is courageous, not cowardly and no one should be battling alone.

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