Many people escaped unhurt from the Uttarakhand floods but witnessed hundreds, including their loved ones, die in front of their eyes. While the bruises and injuries would heal, the memories would haunt them for a long, long time. Their tales of horror – sleeping on dead bodies, eating from garbage cans, watching houses destroyed or loved ones being washed away – would haunt them for years, returning as vivid flashbacks unless they received the proper therapy. The illness is as real as a heart attack or HIV and is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by therapists. 

What is PTSD?

Noticed as early as the 19th Century in soldiers and called by various names including battle fatigue, the term was formally recognised by 1980. Simply talking, PTSD is a severe anxiety disorder which affects people who have suffered some sort of traumatic event like a near-death experience, sexual abuse or serious injury. It’s a serious mental condition which can be debilitating on many levels.

PTSD is a popular plot device in cinemas. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark often suffered from anxiety attacks which were caused due to the events of the previous film The Avengers when he almost dies while trying to destroy the Chitauri (alien invaders) mothership with a nuclear missile. Even Bruce Wayne as a child and young adult was afraid of bats because of an incident when he was trapped in a well with bats (but being Batman he conquered that fear and even made that symbol to strike fear in others).

How is PTSD diagnosed?

According to psychotherapist Rachel Hercman, one is suffering from the condition only if the symptoms recur for a month. ‘The initial symptoms are called Acute Stress Disorder and only if they continue for more than a month is the condition considered PTSD. Not all people who go through a traumatic event develop PTSD, but all those who had PTSD have been through a traumatic event.’  There are a standard set of psychological tests to diagnose the condition which includes disturbing flashbacks, avoiding the memories of the event or high anxiety levels.

Who is more likely to suffer from PTSD?

Women are far likelier to suffer from PTSD because they are likelier to be at the end of sexual abuse. Also soldiers, rape victims and people who’ve grown up in abusive families have a tendency to suffer from the condition. There is an interesting evolutionary explanation of PTSD which believes that it’s caused by events which our ancestors were not exposed to in everyday life. So people who’ve survived fires don’t seem to suffer from PTSD as much as war victims perhaps because modern warfare is relatively new compared to forest fires which have been around for ages.  Studies also showed that children under the age of 10 are less likely to show symptoms than adults. (Read: Children exposed to violence suffer from health problems)

What are the common symptoms?

PTSD affects mental and physical health, relationships and even job performance. The most common symptom of the condition is flashbacks. They are extremely debilitating and make the individual feel like they’ve travelled back in time and their tormentor (or the event that tormented them) is still there.  Rachel says, ‘What people need to understand is that when that happens, it isn’t like your feet are in the here-and-now but your head is somewhere else. Rather, it feels like your entire being is back in time, reliving the trauma and experiencing the event. Moreover, a person can be triggered by even the smallest reminders. For example, let’s say a woman was raped by her boyfriend. For her, walking past a perfume store and suddenly smelling the cologne he used to wear could trigger her. Or walking down the street and seeing a man who is wearing the same kind of cap her boyfriend wore or going on a date with a man and him taking her hand. Years can pass by but a person with PTSD can still experience flashbacks that make it feel like the event is happening all over again.’

What are the treatment options?

The various treatment options depend on the nature of the events. Some of the common ones include individual therapy, group therapy, medication, hypnosis, EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – a kind of psycho-therapeutic process). For some people, religion and spirituality also works. Rachel Hercman adds, ‘For some, getting involved in community events/advocacy relating to their trauma can serve as an avenue of healing that enables them to transform their experience into one that has a positive impact on the world. There are many activists in their respective causes who have shared that they were motivated to get involved because they went through a trauma and wanted to channel their energy into something productive. Ashley Judd, an American actress and daughter of famous American country singer Winona Judd, is an activist and has shared that she is a three-time rape survivor.’

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  • Jeff Eastman

    “44 military veterans attempt and 20 veterans die by suicide every day.”

    Military combat, rape, severe acts of nature and physical assault can also produce symptoms of PTSD.

    PTSDSTRESS.COM is an anonymous, self-directed internet-based computer therapy website that reduces the symptoms of PTSD.

    Developed in part by a National Institute of Health PTSD researcher, the user follows programmed light movements on their computer screen while following easy-to-use instructions. Similar to EMDR, it costs $10 per session and accepts credit cards but does not require a cardholder name for further anonymity and confidentiality. Military and non-military men and women users report results on PTSDSTRESS.COM home page.