What It Is:
It's normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after a traumatic event. Initially, it may be hard to do daily activities you are used to doing, like going to work or spending time with people you care about. This is often referred to as PTS (post-traumatic stress). PTS is a common and normal response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. Common occurrences, like car accidents, can trigger PTS as well as more unusual events like military combat. Almost everyone who experiences a scary situation will show at least a few signs of PTS. Our brains are hard-wired to tell our bodies to tense our muscles, breathe faster, and pump more blood when we’re under intense stress. This is often called the “fight-or-flight” response which helps to prepare our bodies to deal with a threat or challenge. The "fight-or-flight" response is a normal reflex during and sometimes even after a traumatic event, which is why PTS is considered a normal reaction and not a mental illness.
PTS symptoms are common and may improve or resolve within a short period of time after the event. Most people with PTS do not develop PTSD, however, it is possible to develop PTSD without having PTS first. PTS does not require medical intervention or counseling, however, you may benefit from support to prevent symptoms from worsening.
PTSD, on the other hand, is a medically-diagnosed condition which should be treated by a licensed behavioral health clinician. PTSD is characterized by intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to an individual's experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. Scroll down to learn more about PTSD signs and symptoms.
How Common is PTSD in First Responders?
It is estimated that more than 400,000 first responders in America have at least some symptoms of PTSD (*2). More than 80 percent of first responders experience traumatic events on the job (*2) and because they face challenging and dangerous situations, first responders are at an increased of developing PTSD as a work-related condition. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), roughly 1 in 3 first responders develop PTSD (*1). In the general population, the incidence of PTSD is roughly 1 in 5 people.
Signs and Symptoms:
According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories. Specific symptoms can vary in severity.
Intrusion: Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
Avoidance: Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that may trigger distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
Alterations in cognition and mood: Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event, negative thoughts and feelings leading to ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the event leading to wrongly blaming self or other; ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; feeling detached or estranged from others; or being unable to exprience positive emotions (a void of happiness or satisfation).
Alterations in arousal and reactivity: Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being overly watchful of one's surroundings in a suspecting way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.
For a person to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must last for more than a month and must cause significant distress or problems in the individual's daily functioning. Many individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms may appear later and often persist for months and sometimes years. PTSD often occurs in conjunction with other related conditions, such as substance use, depression, memory problems and/or other physical and mental health problems.