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PTSD affects many people beyond the military

Dr. Rachel Yehuda says, “More than half of all people in the United States are exposed to the kind of event that can give you PTSD.”

THE SPECIALIST: Dr. Rachel Yehuda

The director of the traumatic stress studies division at Mount Sinai and the director of mental health at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center, Dr. Rachel Yehuda specializes in posttraumatic stress disorder. She has been working with trauma survivors for over 20 years.

WHO’S AT RISK

Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is perhaps best known as a mental health condition that many soldiers experience after war, but it’s a problem that stretches far beyond the military to affect 5%-10% of all men and 7%-14% of all women in this country.

“PTSD is a disorder in which the patient responds to a watershed event by not being able to recover from its emotional impact,” says Yehuda. “The direct cause is exposure to adversity, and the more trauma people experience, the more likely they are to have PTSD.”

Traumatic exposure is extremely common. “More than half of all people in the United States are exposed to the kind of event that can give you PTSD, and more than a quarter are exposed more than once,” says Yehuda. “Because so many persons experience trauma, PTSD is one of the most common mental health conditions in this country.”

There are a set of common symptoms most people experience after a traumatic event. “When tragedy strikes, almost everyone will feel very shaken up, and for at least a few days there can be nightmares, flashbacks and the inability to sleep or concentrate,” says Yehuda. “PTSD is a disorder where those symptoms continue for weeks, months and sometimes years.”

Not everyone exposed to trauma develops PTSD, and some groups are at higher risk than others. “You’re considered at risk if you have a family history of PTSD or other mood and anxiety disorders, if you’ve had adverse childhood experiences, or if you have a tendency to dissociate or panic,” says Yehuda. “While PTSD has historically been under-detected, there’s a lot more awareness now, and we have increasingly effective treatment. In the future, it’s possible that we’ll be able to reduce the prevalence of PTSD.”

SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS

Traumatic events catalyze the body into a fight-or-flight mode. “It’s very physiological — your heart races, you go into survival mode until the body gets a safety signal and starts to shut down the physiological response,” says Yehuda. “But for people who develop PTSD, their physiology will remain activated just below the threshold, so when they have reminders of the event, their biology cranks up as if they were engaging in fight or flight.” While another person might remember that they felt fear, a person with PTSD relives the fear response in their brain and body.
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