Many people are exposed to trauma during their lives, whether they experience it themselves, witness it in person, or are repeatedly exposed to it in the media. It is common for people who live through trauma to experience a wide range of distressing feelings in the days and weeks that follow. In most people, these feelings naturally subside over time. In others, however, they persist and develop into symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a potentially debilitating condition that can steal your life. Left untreated, PTSD can even lead to suicide.
About 3.5% of U.S. adults suffer from PTSD, and an estimated 1 in 11 will be diagnosed with the condition at some point during their lifetime. Although most people think the condition primarily affects military veterans, it can strike anyone—any nationality, any occupation, any ethnicity—at any age, including children.
PTSD can affect men and women, however, females are two to three times more likely to experience the condition than males. In addition, women tend to suffer trauma at a younger age when it has a greater impact on brain development.
Many types of trauma can lead to PTSD. In general, any frightening, dangerous, or life-threatening event can trigger PTSD symptoms. Here are some common ones:
Keep in mind that you don’t have to be a direct victim of the traumatic event. Being exposed to violent and dangerous situations through the media or indirectly can affect some people so deeply that they develop symptoms of PTSD.
Following a traumatic event, people are likely to experience an array of uncomfortable reactions. Our brains are wired to alarm us about the presence and threat of danger, so having a biological and psychological response to trauma is normal. These symptoms usually diminish as time passes. Unfortunately, not everyone heals with time. When symptoms persist, it is a sign of PTSD.
Symptoms may develop immediately following a traumatic event. In some trauma survivors, however, it can take weeks or months for symptoms to arise. For others, they may not develop until years later when triggered by new trauma. Because of this, people often don’t associate their distressing symptoms with the trauma they experienced.
You may not have all of these symptoms, but people with PTSD usually have several of them. Be aware that it is common for PTSD to occur with other conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions, traumatic brain injury, and cognitive issues, such as memory problems. The symptoms associated with these conditions can often make it more challenging to diagnose PTSD.
PTSD is usually referred to as a psychological issue, but even though PTSD can impact your psychological wellbeing, it is not a mental disorder. It’s important to understand that struggling with symptoms of PTSD is not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness. Advanced brain imaging using a technology called SPECT shows that PTSD is a biological problem in the brain.
As you saw above, some symptoms of PTSD overlap with those of other conditions. For example, being easily startled can be mistaken for anxiety, loss of interest in favorite activities is also seen in depression, sleep issues are seen in many conditions, and concentration problems and anger are also seen in traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Unfortunately, most doctors never look at the brain with brain scans, so they can’t detect the brain patterns identified with PTSD. Instead, they only assess symptoms, which is why people often go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed and given the wrong kind of treatment. In some instances, getting the wrong treatment can make your symptoms worse. This adds up to more suffering.
Brain scans can be very helpful in getting an accurate diagnosis. Two scientific studies published in 2015 by the research team at Amen Clinics in collaboration with scientists from UCLA, Thomas Jefferson University, and the University of British Columbia, showed that brain SPECT imaging was able to differentiate PTSD from TBI with a 94% accuracy rate. By comparison, MRI and CT scans often show “normal” results in people with PTSD, which makes them think they are imagining their symptoms.
This research achievement was recognized by Discover Magazine as #19 of the top 100 science stories of 2015. This research paves the way for people suffering from PTSD (and/or TBI) to get an accurate diagnosis and more effective treatment for faster healing.
With brain scans, seeing is believing. Brain imaging can be very helpful for people with PTSD for a number of reasons, including:
At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive assessment to diagnose and treat our patients. We also assess other factors—biological, psychological, social, and spiritual—that can contribute to PTSD symptoms. Based on all of this information, we are able to personalize treatment using the least toxic, most effective solutions a better outcome.