3 Signs You Might Be Suffering From PTSD

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Barry D. Sarvet, MD Barry D. Sarvet, MD View Profile
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Do you know someone you think might be suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or suspect you might even have the disorder yourself?

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or simply witnessed a traumatic event. Over the years since World War I it has most often been associated with soldiers returning from battle, but PTSD can affect anyone at any age, male or female, including children.

November 11th is Veterans Day and a time to reflect on the 1.9 million veterans — about 209,000 to 380,000 of which will develop PTSD according to a 2020 estimate by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Who Can Develop PTSD?

PTSD is not limited to the stress combat veterans encounter while on the battlefield.

“It can happen to people who have been through catastrophes such as tornadoes or fires, accidents, community violence or other serious events. Grief from the sudden death of a loved one in extraordinary circumstances such as suicide, violence, or unexpected grave illness can also be traumatic and lead to PTSD. Similarly, the death of a child is almost always traumatic for their family members. PTSD is also prevalent in those who have been through physical or sexual assault or abuse,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair of Baystate Health’s Department of Psychiatry.

He also noted that PTSD can be passed down from one generation to the next through its influence on parenting behaviors.

The Baystate psychiatrist noted that psychological trauma can also be experienced from witnessing a traumatic event that primarily affects another person. This is called secondary or vicarious trauma.

3 Signs of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can have a major effect on your everyday life — leading to job loss, substance abuse, divorce and more — and includes several major categories, noted Dr. Sarvet.

1. Intrusive memories/re-experiencing a traumatic event

For example, the person suffering from PTSD could be tormented by painful memories that can manifest in nightmares and cause them to become sleep deprived which itself can cause physical and mental health problems. Traumatic memories can be triggered by experiences which remind them of the traumatic event. These can be seemingly trivial such as a disagreement with a store clerk, being cut off by another driver in traffic, or even seeing someone with a vague resemblance to a person who had victimized them. These experiences may lead to a panic attack or episode of agitation.

2. Avoiding things/triggers that remind you of a traumatic event

This may cause the PTSD sufferer’s activities to become restricted and detached from family members and community. This also can contribute to substance use disorders arising from efforts to self-medicate with drugs that numb the emotional pain.

Trauma causes disconnection, not only from other people but also from parts of the self. The term dissociation represents this process of protecting oneself from the pain by detaching or cutting oneself off from full awareness of the traumatic experience or memory. The dissociation helps people survive in the traumatic experience, but in PTSD, it persists long after, making it difficult for people to access their full range of emotion, and leaving them disconnected from other people.

Veterans returning from a combat experience often have difficulty reintegrating with loved ones and community. They feel that others can’t possibly understand what they have been through and their efforts to cope with triggered traumatic stress reactions can result in further isolation. This may also be compounded by a lack of understanding and appreciation within the society for the sacrifices made by veterans.

3. Hyperarousal

This is another dimension of PTSD. It is both physiological and psychological, arising from chronic stress and causing hypersensitivity to day-to-day stressors, and symptoms of feeling jumpy, irritable and overly angry and aggressive.

According to the National Center for PTSD, about 6 out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives and about 12 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during a given year. Yet this is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma and not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to develop PTSD.

Can PTSD Be Cured?

PTSD is a treatable condition. There are numerous effective mental health treatments, unfortunately, many individuals suffering from PTSD do not receive any treatment at all.

“Mental health providers are in short supply and can be difficult to access. The stigma around seeking mental health care can be a barrier. For others, they simply don’t always notice that they need help. They may be depressed and hopeless that they can recover. That is when a compassionate family member or friend aware of PTSD symptoms can encourage them and helping them access care,” Dr. Sarvet said.

“It may be a long journey, but there are treatments to help control symptoms and, in some cases, completely alleviate them. It is important that people with PTSD seek out a therapist with expertise in trauma informed psychotherapy,” Dr. Sarvet said.

“Although there are specific psychotherapy programs that have been proven to be effective for PTSD, the most important factor for therapy to be effective is the strength of the clinical relationship. This means choosing a therapist who understands you, with whom you feel confidence and trust,” he added.

PTSD Treatments

Treatment for PTSD can involve a combination of psychotherapy, which focuses on processing and learning how to live with the memories of the traumatic experience, coping with trauma triggers, and strengthening relationships with people in one’s life. Treatments may incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to learn to alter patterns of behavior and thinking which contribute to emotional suffering. Some providers utilize a recently developed procedure known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which helps people to gain access to buried memories and feelings.

“Psychiatric medication is sometimes recommended for anxiety, nightmares, or depressive symptoms, however, the psychotherapy is the primary treatment,” Dr. Sarvet said.

Dr. Sarvet noted that there is an exciting new treatment on the horizon that shows great promise for patients with severe PTSD that involves the clinical use of the medicine MDMA in the context of psychotherapy. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is currently in late-stage clinical trials and is on track for FDA approval in the coming year. Otherwise known by the street name “Ecstasy,” MDMA is currently illegal. However, when administered in a psychotherapeutic context under medical monitoring, MDMA has been showing promise as a powerful tool allowing people to process traumatic memories and to reconnect with themselves and others.

According to Dr. Sarvet, some of the participants in the clinical trials who had suffered from PTSD for decades are so markedly improved after just several sessions that they no longer meet criteria for the diagnosis.


Primary Care

If you're looking for mental health services, the best place to start is is with your primary care provider. All Baystate Health primary care practices and health centers have mental health clinicians who can help get the process started. Find a primary care practice near you

PTSD Helplines

A variety of helplines and support are available to veterans. In the United States, if you are a veteran in crisis or concerned about one (you do not need to be enrolled in VA benefits or healthcare to call), call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 then press 1. You can also call the Veteran Center Call Center hotline to talk with another combat veteran at 1-877-927-8387 or use the PTSD Program Locator to find specialized VA PTSD treatment. Locally, the Springfield, MA Vet Center on 95A Ashley Avenue in West Springfield offers assessment and support for PTSD through private counseling and group therapy. Call 413-737-5167.

Mental Health Resources

The Baystate Family Advocacy Center is a great resource for trauma-focused mental health treatment for children, adolescents in their families. Call 413-794-9816 to learn more.

In the greater Springfield area, there are several community mental health agencies such as the Behavioral Health Network, which offer a full range of outpatient mental health service. They can be reached at 413-246-9675.

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