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12 March 2004

When trauma haunts you

Tyrone was fine after that terrible day when he was involved in an accident. Six months later his family started worrying because he became more anxious, had recurring nightmares about the event and did not function as well as he normally would.

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Tyrone was fine after that terrible day when he was involved in an accident. Six months later his family started worrying because he became more anxious, had recurring nightmares about the event and did not function as well as he normally would. They couldn’t understand what was happening as he seemed to have been managing fine.

Tyrone is one of the many people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder arises as a delayed response to a traumatic or stressful event of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature. These include natural disasters, acts of terrorism such as bomb blasts, hijackings and physical assault such as rape. Problems outside the range of typical human experience, such as divorce or loss of a loved one, do not trigger PTSD.

How is it diagnosed?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people who have PTSD are those who:

  • Have experienced, witnessed or were confronted with a traumatic event that involved the threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others, causing them to respond with intense fear, helplessness or horror.
  • Persistently re-experience the event through intrusive thoughts, dreams, acting or feeling as if the event were reoccurring, and/or intense distress and emotion when exposed to cues that symbolise or resemble the event.
  • Avoid stimuli associated with the event and attempt to numb their general responsiveness by avoiding thoughts, feelings, conversation, activities, places or people associated with the trauma.
  • Are unable to recall important aspects of the trauma and loss of interest in participating in activities.
  • Feel detached from others, have a restricted range of emotions and are often unable to have loving relationships.
  • Feel little hope for their future.
  • Experience symptoms of increased emotional stimulation such as difficulty sleeping, irritability or angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating and exaggerated or startled responses.

For a diagnosis to be made, these disturbances must continue for at least a month and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Should traumatic stress symptoms persist beyond four to six weeks, therapy is indicated and medication may be necessary.

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