What Is A Normal Response To A Trauma And When Should I Be Worried About Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Dr. Cathy Frank answers the question: 'Do I Have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?'

ByCathy Frank, M.D., Director, Outpatient Behavioral Health Services, Henry Ford Hospital
April 15, 2008, 5:30 PM

— -- Question: What is a normal response to a trauma, and when should I be worried about posttraumatic stress disorder?

Answer: There are many traumas in life such as divorce, or losing a loved one. But posttraumatic stress disorder is really defined by a different type of trauma. It is usually a trauma, by definition, that the person experiences or witnesses a life threatening event.

We often think of veterans from wars experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. It may also occur in relationship to other traumas -- such as rape, assault, child abuse, car accidents, or national disasters.

When any of us experience those type of traumas, a normal reaction may be to be fearful, maybe have some insomnia or nightmares about the event. If you had a terrible car accident, you may be fearful the first time you get back in the car.

But posttraumatic stress disorder is different in the sense where that normal reaction is short lived, people with posttraumatic stress disorder experience an intense fear and anxiety for a month or more. They re-experience the trauma, either by flashbacks or nightmares. They withdraw from life and from things around them. They avoid things that remind them of the trauma they experienced, and they also suffer from a number of things, such as irritability, insomnia, and a sense that their life may not hold much in the future. It, too, is a treatable disorder.

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