Understanding PTSD and How it Presents in Adults and Children

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in some people because of exposure to traumatic events. These can include domestic, community, or school violence, sexual assault, traffic collisions, acute medical crisis, child abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, or other traumatic events. Some people may experience PTSD because of events in their lives during Covid. Violent or assault-linked trauma is more likely to provoke PTSD than traumatic events not connected with hostile intent.

When a traumatic event occurs, it triggers our “fight or flight” response. The body pumps the hormone cortisol into our system, our heart rate increases, glucose (sugar) is released into our bloodstream for energy, and blood is diverted from our internal organs to our muscles. Our body is ready to fight off the threat or to flee to safety. You may have experienced this in your life when you found yourself in a near-miss car accident or an intense conflict with another person. After the triggering event is over, most of us will recover, and our bodies will return to a “normal” condition. Those who do not experience a return to baseline may begin to display symptoms of PTSD.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), some symptoms may develop soon after the event, while others may not manifest symptoms for years. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must experience symptoms for at least one month, which fall into four main categories. Those include:

“Re-experiencing” symptoms include flashbacks or reliving the trauma, bad dreams, and invasive, frightening thoughts. These episodes could be triggered by outside events, such as a firecracker going off, or by troubling thoughts“Avoidance” symptoms where the individual avoids people, places, things, thoughts, or experiences that remind them of the traumatic event“Arousal or reactivity” symptoms seem like the person is always on the edge of the flight or fight response – easily startled, unable to sleep or rest, and prone to angry outbursts.

“Cognitive or mood” symptoms can include the inability to recall parts of the traumatic event, a negative outlook, feelings of guilt or fault, and a loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities.

In children, the symptoms of PTSD may not be the same as those in adults. A child may act out behaviorally, draw pictures of the traumatic event, cling or attach themselves to a parent or trusted adult, or begin to wet the bed. Other symptoms may also ensue.

After a traumatic event, various factors may strengthen a person’s resilience and help them “bounce back.” Having a strong, reliable social support network of family and friends not only supports our overall mental health but also enhances our resilience in the face of traumatic events. It is important to seek additional support after the trauma if needed. Appreciating your courage to get through challenging situations in the past and recognizing the things learned from these events supports your ability to bounce back. In more severe cases, counselling and medication can help a person move through this challenging experience, develop new coping skills, build resilience, and find joy again.

If you recognize the symptoms of PTSD in yourself or a loved one, encourage them to reach out for help.

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