Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: What Causes It?

Most people have heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was the Vietnam War that really put PTSD on the psychological map of the average person in the street. Veterans of that war became increasingly vocal about the aftereffects of the war, not only physical, but psychological. The disorder slowly became recognized, both by the health community and the general public alike. It was given a name: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Of course, PTSD has existed from the time humans first roamed the earth. After the First and Second World Wars, it was referred to as “shell-shock” and most people are familiar with this term. But PTSD is not confined to those who went to war nor is it confined to males. PTSD can happen to anyone given the right circumstances. It does not happen to “weak” people, as a well-known psychiatrist in the city in which I live once claimed. Nor are these people “out for compensation” as this consultant also claimed. They are genuinely traumatized people.

Essential to developing PTSD is having experienced a traumatic event, or series of traumatic events. There must also exist a belief that as a result of that trauma, one is going to die. Adrian is a classic example of someone who has been exposed to a situation which is conducive to developing the disorder. Let’s look at his story.

Adrian was working on a fishing vessel along with fifteen of his companions who he had worked with for over ten years. One night while trawling off the coast of Newfoundland, the boat developed an engine problem and suddenly exploded. At the time, Adrian was working at the stern of the boat and was flung into the icy waters. He was the sole survivor. It was dark, but not dark enough to ignore the dead bodies of his friends and companions in the water around him. He watched the boat consumed by fire and then quickly sink. He was fortunate to find a piece of equipment to hang onto, but hypothermia was making his plight desperate.

Fortunately, he was not too far off the coast and the alarm was raised. Nevertheless, Adrian spent the entire night clinging to a small piece of wood and fearing for his life. At one point a severed arm brushed up against him. In the morning, he was rescued and taken to hospital where his vital signs were good and he made a relatively rapid recovery. It looked like Adrian was a lucky man indeed.

But this was just the start of a life of hell for Adrian. Within about two weeks of the event, the nightmares began. Although he was given a clean bill of health, when he tried to return to his former job, he was overcome by recollections of that night on-board the fishing vessel and eventually had to leave his employment. He could not stand the smell of smoke, to the point where even burning toast would send him into an anxiety attack. Within six months, Adrian was admitted to the psychiatric wing of a hospital and required medication. PTSD was the diagnosis.

PTSD is a relatively common side-effect after traumatic events. Police officers, ambulance drivers, and emergency workers are particularly prone to the disorder given the nature of the jobs that they perform. PTSD is also a very common side effect of sexual assault, and many women who have experienced sexual crimes also suffer from this debilitating disorder.

Next article, we will look at diagnostic criteria for this disorder.

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