Understanding Posttraumatic Stress

Posttraumatic Stress (PTS) is severe anxiety that can develop after an individual is exposed to one or more events that cause psychological trauma.

PTS affects approximately 25% of those exposed to a single traumatic incident, but Cumulative Career Traumatic Stress (CCTS) affects nearly 90% of those who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events.

What Is Posttraumatic Stress (PTS)?

Posttraumatic stress (PTS) is severe anxiety that can develop after an individual is exposed to one or more events that cause psychological trauma. The symptoms of cumulative career traumatic stress (CCTS) are similar to those of PTS, except that CCTS is caused by a series of traumatic events over a prolonged time, such as the experiences a first responder encounters throughout their career. Both PTS and CCTS are born from an extreme but natural reaction to a traumatic event. They often occur after an intense situation during which a person believes they or somebody else is going to die or be seriously injured and they can do nothing to prevent it. PTS affects approximately 25% of those exposed to a single traumatic incident, but CCTS affects nearly 90% of those who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events.

Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress

Posttraumatic stress damages the brain’s ability to process and understand emotional trauma and place it in the right perspective. It can occur weeks or even years after a traumatic event and can affect anyone. Delayed PTS symptoms occur at least six months after the event or even later, with approximately 40% of diagnoses falling into this category.

More than 7 million Americans suffer from posttraumatic stress. About 15-18% of working police officers (about 140,000) have PTS and CCTS symptoms, and tens of thousands more suffer from acute stress disorder. The rate of PTS in police work is three to four times that of the general population.

Recognizing the Signs & Symptoms of PTS

Most people experience stress from time to time, and it can originate from all kinds of sources, including work, job loss or threatened job loss, finances, divorce, relationships, family issues, the birth of a child, the death or severe illness of a loved one, legal issues, or even failing at something. A person can also experience stress following a single extremely traumatic incident, or it can build up after repeated stressful incidents.

Although stress is a universal experience, it is critical to be aware of your sources of stress and the signs of posttraumatic stress so that you can seek early and effective interventions as needed.

Some signs of posttraumatic stress include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks (feeling as though you are reliving the traumatic event)
  • Problems remembering the event, or unwillingness to discuss it
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Changing your behavior to avoid people or situations that remind you of the event
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling as though you are always in danger
  • Pulling away from family and friends
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Trouble sleeping, or excessive sleeping
  • Panic symptoms (e.g., difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, or feeling like you are having a heart attack or heart problems)
  • Agitation, restlessness, and irritability
  • Change in appetite, or weight gain or loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Hopelessness or helplessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, self-hate, and guilt
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that you once enjoyed

Treatment Modalities for PTS

Posttraumatic stress is a complex mental processing injury in which one or more traumatic experiences have disrupted a person’s memory, emotional responses, intellectual processes, and nervous system. Treatment for the effects of PTS is available, and individuals can learn to manage PTS symptoms. The most commonly recommended methods of treatment for PTS include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy – A trained therapist uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help an individual who is struggling with posttraumatic stress to identify how unhealthy thoughts can be connected to unhealthy behaviors, assisting them in making positive changes to those thought and behavior patterns. CBT focuses on the issues a person is facing today rather than their past and helps them work toward developing more productive thoughts and behaviors so that they can function better in their day-to-day life.
  • Prolonged exposure – Prolonged exposure is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy used to help individuals gradually approach the memories and feelings associated with the trauma they experienced. While prolonged exposure was originally developed for military members who dealt with significant PTS after experiencing combat, this type of treatment can help anyone who is suffering from PTS to face their trauma-related memories and find relief from their symptoms.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – More commonly known as EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing involves having the individual focus on a memory of the trauma while experiencing bilateral stimulation, typically in the form of a therapist passing their fingers in front of the individual’s eyes or tapping both of the individual’s knees at the same time. Proponents of EMDR theorize that this neurologically desensitizes the individual to the traumatic memory and reduces their reactions to external triggers such as sights, sounds, smells, or tastes.
  • New serotonin medications – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) target specific neurotransmitters in the brain — namely either serotonin or norepinephrine. Each medication helps to ease depression and anxiety symptoms by targeting either serotonin or norepinephrine and preventing their reabsorption (or reuptake) into the brain. While only certain SSRIs are FDA-approved to treat PTS, many individuals who struggle with symptoms of PTS may respond positively to other SSRIs and SNRIs.

Everyone feels stress every now and again, but if you think you or someone you love is experiencing the signs or symptoms of posttraumatic stress, help is available. There are many different treatment options for PTS that can help you or your loved one find long-term health and wellness free from the symptoms that are disrupting your life.

Marks of Quality Care
  • FBI National Academy Associates
  • Higher Education Case Management Association (HECMA)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)
  • The Joint Commission (JCAHO) Gold Seal of Approval
  • The Jason Foundation