DEAR DOCTOR K: A few months ago I was in a serious car accident. Since then I’ve been incredibly jumpy and have trouble sleeping. My wife thinks I may have PTSD. Could she be right?
DEAR READER: Post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD – is a condition in which distressing symptoms occur after a major trauma. PTSD is often discussed in the context of troops who have served in war zones, but you don’t have to see battle to get PTSD.
A single crisis (such as a serious car accident) or a series of events – as long as they are severe enough – can cause PTSD. You could also have PTSD following: airplane accidents; physical assaults, robberies or kidnappings; fires; heart attacks and other major physical illnesses; natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.
It’s normal to experience fear, shock, helplessness, stress and extreme sadness soon after a traumatic event. But if you’re still experiencing these reactions more than one month after the event, that might indicate a problem.
When diagnosing PTSD, doctors often look for three things:
• Hyperarousal. This is an ongoing state of tension that resembles a “fight or flight” response to danger. You may experience insomnia, angry outbursts, an exaggerated startle response and hypervigilance. Headaches, trembling, diarrhea and fatigue are common.
• Avoidance. You may feel detached or numb. You may be unable to talk about the traumatic event or revisit the place where it occurred. PTSD patients also often withdraw from people and social events, particularly those even remotely associated with the trauma.
• Re-experiencing. This is the worst symptom. You may have unwelcome and disruptive thoughts about the event that interfere with normal concentration and function. Recurrent nightmares are also quite typical. In extreme cases, you may mentally relive the traumatic experience.
Talk to your doctor. Whether or not you have PTSD, you clearly need support to recover from your experience.