Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition which can occur following exposure to an actual or perceived threat to the life or physical safety of the individual or of another person. Examples of potentially traumatic events include war, natural disasters, accidents, physical assault, sexual assault, torture, and acts of terrorism.
Of course not everyone who is exposed to such events goes on to develop PTSD. Most people experience some initial distress but readily recover. For this reason, there is no need for psychologists to be routinely involved in the immediate aftermath of trauma. It is recommended that people are offered practical and emotional support and encouraged to use their existing personal resources and social supports. Routine use of psychological debriefing is not recommended and psychologists need only become involved with those individuals who are very distressed or do not start to return to their usual functioning in the first week or two.1
Individuals who do go on to develop PTSD will experience four types of symptoms:2
- re-experiencing the trauma - unwanted thoughts and images related to the distressing event, including dreams and flashbacks
- avoidance and numbing - attempts to avoid people, places and activities associated with the trauma
- alterations in cognitions and mood - loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, feelings of detachment from others, and persistent negative mood or inability to experience positive mood
- increased arousal - sleep difficulties, increased irritability and anger, poor concentration and memory, increased startle response, and hypervigilance.
For diagnosis, symptoms must be present for more than one month and cause significant distress or interfere with important areas of psychosocial functioning, such as work or family life.2 In addition to the core symptoms of PTSD, sufferers can experience a range of associated features, including dissociative symptoms, and physical health problems.1
Unstructured and/or structured clinical interviews as well as self-report measures can be used to assess for PTSD.1
Recommended treatments for PTSD include trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).1, 3