What Causes PTSD To Get Worse?

What Causes PTSD To Get Worse?

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects millions of people worldwide, many of whom struggle each day to overcome the symptoms and maintain control of their lives. But the condition and its symptoms can worsen in certain situations. Fortunately, they also can be treated.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health ailment activated by a frightening incident – meaning you either experienced or witnessed it happening. Symptoms vary by person and can be stronger for you than someone else who experienced the same or a similar event.

It’s not unusual for someone who survives a trauma to have short-term problems adjusting and coping, but time and quality self-care often lead to positive outcomes. But if the symptoms worsen, lingering for months or longer, and affect your quality of life, you may have PTSD or another mental illness.

Typical symptoms include intrusive memories, avoiding reminders of what happened, mood changes, including thinking bad about yourself or others, and changes in emotional and physical reactions. 

Anyone can get PTSD regardless of age or gender, but there are certain risk factors to be aware of, including:

  • Long-lasting trauma
  • Instances of trauma as a child
  • An occupation that puts you in harm’s way
  • Other mental health issues
  • No support system
  • Substance abuse and many others

Like other mental health conditions, there is no single cause for posttraumatic stress disorder. People assume that a cataclysmic event will cause PTSD, but it also can be triggered by stress and health problems.

Factors that Make PTSD Worse

PTSD can be worsened due to the kind of trigger involved. A trigger reminds you of what happened, activating memories, emotions, and physical responses, leading to a severe reaction.

Factors that can cause PTSD to get worse include any of the following:

  • Seeing someone linked to what happened may lead to a PTSD reaction. Or that person’s physical trait or appearance could be a reminder. If you were assaulted by someone wearing a mask, an innocent person with a ski mask on could trigger unpleasant memories.
  • Thoughts and emotions could resurface in certain situations, rekindling how you felt when traumatized – like fear, helplessness, or deep stress.
  • You could see an object which reminds you of what happened, and it’ll cause PTSD symptoms to flare up. For instance, a soldier who lived through a deadly combat mission may feel traumatized once again upon seeing a paintball gun.
  • Certain odors. For example, if someone experienced a home fire, the smell of smoke may trigger them. Today, scents from a campfire may produce the same reaction.
  • Certain locations. If you were taken hostage during a bank robbery, as an example, returning to that location and remembering the trauma and chaos involved may worsen other symptoms.
  • TV shows, newscasts, and other kinds of media. Watching a similar trauma often triggers symptoms and makes them get worse, especially today with easily accessible 24-hour news sources.
  • Some sensations, like pain, are powerful triggers. If you survived an assault, getting accidentally brushed up against your arm could lead to a terrifying flashback.
  • Sounds like an exploding firecracker or a back-firing car exhaust can be a reminder of gunfire, especially for military veterans or others exposed to gun violence.
  • The tastes of certain foods can trigger memories of a traumatic incident.
  • You survived a terrible car accident once but had to be rescued by firefighters who used something called “the jaws of life,” a hydraulic-based extrication tool than can bend metal and steel. Getting momentarily stuck in an elevator can create the same fear.
  • Anniversaries are a common trigger for PTSD and can make symptoms worse.
  • Reading books or other media or hearing specific words can trigger your PTSD.

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is a three-step process that involves a doctor who will:

  • Conduct a physical examination to confirm or rule out medical problems that may be triggering your symptoms.
  • Do a psychological assessment which includes talking about symptoms, triggers, personal and family history of mental illness, and the trauma.
  • Refer to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to make a final diagnosis.

If your PTSD worsens, your healthcare provider may recommend psychotherapy to teach you skills to manage your symptoms, medicine like antidepressants, self-help, support groups, or ketamine therapy.

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