Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Could it Happen to You?
Most of us associate post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with returning military veterans who have experienced the tragedy of war. But you don’t have to be a soldier to undergo the intense feelings of helplessness, horror,and fear that characterize PTSD.
For days and weeks afterwards, you constantly relive the accident in your mind. You take a different route to shop and, worst of all, your body won’t let you relax. You can’t sleep — and when you finally do doze off, you’re awakened by nightmares. You can’t concentrate, your heart pounds, and you break out in cold sweats.
“We know that anyone who has undergone some kind of trauma can be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder,” explains Anne Germain, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Based at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, she currently leads several sleep research projects with returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have PTSD.
PTSD can be triggered by a single event you’ve experienced or even witnessed — be it an accident, violent crime, or natural disaster — or by ongoing trauma, such as child abuse or domestic violence.
When we experience a life-threatening event, it’s normal for our body to react with a powerful, stressful response; it’s what enables us to fight or flee.
“But for some people, these symptoms persist and worsen,” says Dr. Germain. “The toll can be profound if symptoms are ignored. PTSD has a devastating impact on the lives of people who have it — and on those around them. It also has enormous financial and economic implications.”
PTSD is a relatively new specialization in psychology, and experts are still trying to determine why it affects some people and not others. Fortunately, for most people, the symptoms of PTSD begin to ease in about a month. “If they continue, it’s extremely important to seek professional help,” notes Dr. Germain. “The best place to begin is to talk with your family doctor and seek a referral to a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist.”
PTSD and sleep disorders
Among the most troubling aspects of chronic PTSD for patients are the recurring nightmares and insomnia it can bring. There is growing evidence that such sleep disorders have a direct impact on both a person’s mental and physical health.
Individuals with PTSD often say they have problems falling or staying asleep, and that the sleep they get isn’t refreshing and restorative. “Our sleep research studies with veterans show that they have many more sleep disorders than the general public, including sleep apnea and other breathing problems,” notes Dr. Germain.
With PTSD, nightmares can become an ingrained behavior, affecting a person’s daytime functioning — from faltering concentration and poor memory, to emotional outbursts.
“By stopping the nightmares and helping to make sleep more normal, restful, and restorative, patients can overcome other aspects of chronic PTSD in their lives a bit more easily. And sleep can be improved in a matter of weeks,” she says.
Dr. Germain uses several methods to treat PTSD-related sleep disorders, including image reversal therapy. “We help patients replace a recurring nightmare with a more positive, affirming dream. They write it down and rehearse it several times a day to train the brain to have a new dream image.”
Individuals interested in participating in Dr. Germain’s sleep research studies for military veterans are invited to call 412-246-6404 or visit www.veteranssleep.pitt.edu.