Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dr. David L. Kupfer, Ph.D.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex set of symptoms that occur after someone has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event that would cause distress for anyone. Traumatic events can include violent crime, serious accidents, wartime combat, or natural disasters. After experiencing trauma, anxiety and panic episodes are common. Other typical PTSD symptoms include nightmares, sleep problems, flashbacks, difficulties with concentration, becoming startled quite easily, and feeling detached from the world or fundamentally different from other people. After going through a traumatic event, it is natural for people to feel anxiety when just thinking about their experience and when in a situation even remotely resembling the one in which they were traumatized. Many people with PTSD understandably try to avoid the people, places, or activities that remind them of the experience that initially affected them. This avoidance protects them from anxiety, but restricts them from living a full life.

Angie was driving to work when she was struck from the rear by another car. She had painful injuries to her head and neck, requiring medical evaluation and time-consuming physical therapy for months. But stressful processes kept on coming. Her car was damaged beyond repair, and she had buy a new one, Never afraid to drive in the past, she began to fear any road that resembled the one in which she had been hurt. Some days she couldn’t drive at all. Angie was advised to take legal action against the other driver, requiring her to meet with lawyers, recall and describe the accident in detail repetitively Her supervisors at work were not very understanding of her need to miss time for appointments related to the accident, and she began to receive negative feedback from people at work. She feared losing her job. Unmarried, she had trouble feeling comfortable with her boyfriend and her female friends. She felt that no one could understand what she had experienced. Friendships fractured, she broke up with her boyfriend, and felt alone. Most strikingly, she felt vulnerable in a way that she had never felt before. In her words, she felt “doomed.” She felt like she was always on the verge of something bad happening to her.

A comprehensive cognitive-behavioral treatment package helped Angie recover from PTSD. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a method that seemed strange to Angie at first, proved useful. With EMDR, she was able to change her thinking from “Bad things are bound to happen to me; nothing will ever go right for me again” to the more positive “I was able to survive a bad accident; I can cope with other challenges in the future.” Behavior therapy helped her resume driving in situations resembling the one in which the accident occurred. She learned to effectively ask friends and co-workers to understand her, and her relationships with people improved. She felt like her old self again, only wiser.