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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a set of mental health reactions that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed an event that threatens their life or safety (or others around them) and leads to feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war-related events or torture, or a natural disaster such as bushfire or flood.

Other life-changing situations such as being retrenched, getting divorced or the expected death of an ill family member are very distressing, and may cause mental health problems, but are not considered events that can cause PTSD.

Anyone can develop PTSD following a traumatic event but people are at greater risk if:
The event involved physical or sexual assault
They have had repeated traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or living in a war zone
They have suffered from PTSD in the past.
Signs and symptoms

People with PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear, which may resemble what was felt during the traumatic event. A person with PTSD has three main types of difficulties:
Reliving the traumatic event – through unwanted and recurring memories and vivid nightmares. There may be intense emotional or physical reactions when reminded of the event. These can include sweating, heart palpitations or panic.
Being overly alert or ‘wound up’ – sleeping difficulties, irritability, lack of concentration, becoming easily startled and constantly being on the lookout for signs of danger.
Avoiding reminders of the event and feeling emotionally numb – deliberately avoiding activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event. People may lose interest in day-to-day activities, feel cut off and detached from friends and family, or feel flat and numb.

People with PTSD can also have what are termed ‘dissociative experiences’, which are frequently described as follows:
‘It was as though I wasn’t even there.’
‘Time was standing still.’
‘I felt like I was watching things happen from above.’
‘I can’t remember most of what happened.’
A health practitioner may diagnose PTSD if a person has a number of symptoms in each of the three areas for a month or more, which:
Lead to significant distress, or impact on their ability to work and study, their relationships and day-to-day life.
It is not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems at the same time. Up to 80 per cent of people who have long-standing PTSD develop additional problems, most commonly depression, anxiety and alcohol or other substance misuse. These may have developed directly in response to the traumatic event or have developed sometime later after the onset of PTSD.

Impact of PTSD on relationships and day-to-day life:

PTSD can affect a person’s ability to work, perform day-to-day activities or relate to their family and friends. A person with PTSD can often seem disinterested or distant as they try not to think or feel in order to block out painful memories. They may stop participating in family life, ignore offers of help or become irritable. This can lead to loved ones feeling shut out.

It is important to remember that these behaviours are part of the problem. People with PTSD need the support of family and friends but may not know that they need help. There are many ways you can help someone with PTSD. See ‘Where to get help’ for further information and resources.

Risky alcohol and drug use:

People commonly use alcohol or other drugs to blunt the emotional pain that they are experiencing. Alcohol and drugs may help block out painful memories in the short term, but they can get in the way of a successful recovery.



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