Getting to grips with . . .

PTSD: the definition, symptoms and treatment

Labour MP Nadia Whittome has spoken out about her struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is under the spotlight following the announcement by the UK’s youngest MP that she was taking “several weeks off” after being diagnosed with the mental health problem.

Labour’s Nadia Whittome, MP for Nottingham East, said that “through being open about my own mental health struggle, I hope that others will also feel able to talk about theirs”. 

The 23-year-old has been applauded by high-profile figures including Labour leader Keir Starmer and his deputy Angela Rayner, who both praised her “bravery”, while Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted her thanks to Whittome for “doing so much to tackle the stigma that still surrounds issues of mental health”.

Whittome spoke out months after US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealed that the fear she experienced during January’s storming of the Capitol by pro-Donald Trump protesters had been “amplified by a previous trauma she had never spoken about publicly: sexual assault”, as USA Today reported at the time. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s “account aligns with what science shows happens to a mind and body under extreme forms of stress”, the news site continued. “When someone has a history of trauma, a new traumatic event, even if it's a different type of trauma, can reactivate similar feelings.”

What is the definition of PTSD?

PTSD is defined on the NHS website as “an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events”. It can be caused by any situation that a person finds traumatic, from a road traffic accident to the experience of childbirth. Not everyone experiences PTSD after undergoing a traumatic experience: around one in three people are affected. 

The disorder can develop immediately after the trauma occurs or much later. “Many people who experience a trauma will experience some symptoms which dissipate after a number of weeks,” says PTSD UK, a charity dedicated to raising awareness of the disorder. But “in around 15% of people, there may be a delay of months or even years before symptoms even start to appear”.

The charity adds that PTSD sufferers “can have many ‘triggers’ - sounds, smells, tastes, things you see, emotions you feel, etc, can all bring back the trauma, presented as real life”. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms vary from person to person but can generally be split into four categories, according to PTSD UK. The most common signs include “re-experiencing symptoms” - when a person relives the traumatic incident through flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts or physical sensations such as pain or nausea. 

Sometimes a PTSD sufferer will try to avoid reminders of the incident  - known as “avoidance symptoms” - possibly by shunning particular people and places. Sufferers may also use alcohol and drugs to block out painful memories, or feel a need to keep busy all the time, while others are unable to remember details of the trauma.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez experienced PTSD after the storming of the US Capitol in January

Some people with PTSD experience a sense of constant awareness - known as “alertness and reactivity symptoms”. Sufferers may feel jittery or always on the lookout for danger, or may have difficulty concentrating, experience insomnia, or be irritable and quick to anger. 

Finally, the way that sufferers think about themselves and others may change as a result of the disorder. These “feeling and mood symptoms” may include a sense that no one can be trusted, overwhelming negative emotions such as fear, guilt or shame, and loss of interest in activities that the sufferer previously enjoyed. 

How is PTSD treated?

The NHS says that PTSD “can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event”. The type of treatment will depend on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event, but could include antidepressants and psychological therapies (such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy).

Alternatively, doctors may recommend “watchful waiting” - where patients are monitored to see whether their symptoms improve or get worse without treatment. 

To seek treatment for PTSD, you can see your GP or self-refer to a psychological therapies service.

Experts recommend seeking support if symptoms last for longer than around four weeks, or if the symptoms are “particularly troublesome”, says PTSD UK.

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