The trauma can be over in seconds. The effects may linger for a lifetime. In the United States, around 60% of men and 50% of women endure at least one trauma at some point in their lives. Most recover. No matter how horrible, the trauma is an unhappy event they can put behind them. For a few, the event is constantly replayed. They deal with nightmares, anxiety, and depression. Around 8% of the U.S. population faces post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point. It’s unknown exactly why some people are more vulnerable than others. What healthcare professionals do know is that the condition doesn’t just harm the mind. There are many ways PTSD affects the body as well.
The horrors of World War I are legendary. 20th century weapons collided with 19th century battle strategy. Millions of soldiers were literally entrenched while seemingly never-ending shelling delivered deadly explosions and poisonous gas. During an early conflict, the Battle of the Marne, some 432,000 shells were fired over five days in September of 1914. The aftermath lay not just in broken bodies but broken minds––soldiers entering hospital tents with no visible injuries were afflicted by shaking, ringing in the ears, confusion, and loss of memory. At first the men were diagnosed with concussions. Then it was learned that many had been a “safe” distance from the shelling. In February of 1915, an article in British medical journal The Lancet first described the condition: “Shell shock.”
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 20% of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans have PTSD in a given year. It’s estimated that about 30% of all Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. Still, long before the APA’s addition, healthcare professionals knew that soldiers were not the only ones who experienced PTSD. It’s impossible to know who will suffer, although early trauma in childhood can lead to PTSD, as can prolonged exposure to trauma (as in a war zone).
People with family histories of depression along with abuse survivors are vulnerable. Intentional acts of violence like assault or rape tend to be more triggering than impersonal accidents and disasters. Symptoms include recurrent and disturbing thoughts about the traumatic event. Besides nightmares and flashbacks, PTSD survivors are often hypervigilant with irritability and anger that can be easily triggered. Others, however, detach completely. Most learn to avoid anything that recalls the trauma and triggers them. Although people who have experienced trauma may have these symptoms, for a diagnosis of PTSD, symptoms must continue unabated for over a month. They also must affect the survivor’s ability to manage their day-to-day life. Left untreated, these symptoms can affect their physical health.
Ways PTSD Affects Your Health
PTSD physical effects are partly behavioral. Enduring extreme anxiety, people with PTSD drink more alcohol, smoke more cigarettes, and abuse more drugs (both legal and illegal) than the average person. It’s logical that they would also suffer increased rates of liver cirrhosis, lung cancer, and overdose. Yet people with PTSD also display greater likelihood of contracting numerous other illnesses with less of a clearcut behavioral connection. A 2010 examination of studies noted that PTSD was connected to hypertension, obesity, and cardiovascular disease among others. It theorized that trauma exposure disrupts the way an individual’s body and mind interact––leaving them “progressively sensitized and kindled” by repeated exposure to triggers. Other studies have connected PTSD to arthritis, diabetes, and problems with the reproductive system.
The reason for such a wide range of health problems appears linked to our stress response. If someone startles you, your body will unleash a burst of cortisol and norepinephrine. These stress hormones are part of your body’s fight-or-flight response. In the seconds after you’ve been startled, your heart rate will increase, your breathing will become more rapid, and your muscles will contract. Shortly afterward, your body returns to its baseline. For PTSD survivors, that baseline is never completely achieved. Their cortisol and norepinephrine levels are always elevated. This increases their risk for a variety of health problems.
Treatment is vital. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can treat some PTSD symptoms. However, short-term cognitive behavioral therapy where someone with PTSD identifies triggers and works through their negative emotions is highly recommended. A recent study described cognitive behavioral therapy as the “the gold standard “ in the psychotherapy field––not just for PTSD but for numerous psychological conditions. If you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD, get help. Because the condition can destroy both the body and the mind.
- How Common is PTSD in Adults?
- World War I: 100 Years Later
- A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock
- How Common is PTSD in Veterans?
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- The long-term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences
- How PTSD Relates to Physical Health Issues
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.