8 PTSD Facts You May Not Know

June 2, 2022

When was the last time you gasped for air? Was it because you choked on a piece of food or because you laughed so hard that you couldn’t catch your breath? Maybe you had pneumonia? That feeling of not being able to catch your breath can be frightening. Now imagine what it is like if it’s hard to breathe for a longer period because you are seriously ill. This can affect you physically and mentally, and could cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

According to an article on the Cedars-Sinai blog, “Up to one-third of people who experience the sensation of not being able to breathe, as in severe cases of COVID-19, develop clinical PTSD after those experiences.” Itai Danovitch, MD, a psychiatrist at Cedars-Sinai, said, “Studies show that the experience of being hospitalized—being confused and frightened and feeling like you’re drowning—is traumatizing.” 

Many severe sepsis and septic shock survivors also report experiencing PTSD. Unfortunately, many myths surround the condition and the people who experience it.  

To help mark PTSD Awareness Month this June, see how many of these PTSD facts you know. 

 1- About 6 out of every 100 people in the U.S. will develop PTSD at some time. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 12 million adults in the U.S. experience PTSD each year. The severity of the condition seems to be evenly split, with 36.6% of people with PTSD experiencing severe symptoms, 33.1% experiencing moderate symptoms, and 30.2% experiencing mild symptoms. 

 2- PTSD was only officially recognized as a diagnosis 42 years ago.

There was no official diagnosis for PTSD  before it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. It took even longer for the World Health Organization to include it in the International Classification of Diseases, in 1992. 

 3- The condition is not limited to wartime and obvious traumas. 

PTSD has existed since humans evolved. In times of war, it was commonly called shell shock, war neurosis, or battle fatigue, among other names. But these terms limited the condition to people who fought in wars, not those who developed PTSD from other situations, such as being exposed to war, natural disasters, trauma, abuse, or neglect. 

A severe illness, especially if treated in an intensive care unit (ICU), can also cause PTSD. According to an article published by McMaster University in Canada, “People with mental health issues, scary memories of their medical emergency, or who are sedated with drugs which can cause frightening delusions or hallucinations are even more at risk.” 

 4- Caregivers can develop symptoms too. 

Whether it be through violence or illness, trauma touches more than just the affected person. Caregivers can experience PTSD because of what occurred to their loved ones. Experts don’t know much about how this happens, but it’s not surprising that stress would play a significant role. In an article on Forbes.com, Ranak Trivedi, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said, “As clinical psychologists, we are also recognizing that chronic stress that is unrelenting — such as through caregiving — can lead to PTSD.” 

In a study published in 2016 in the New England Journal of Medicine, almost 70% of family and friends of people with critical illnesses experienced higher levels of depression than the general population. Another study showed higher rates of PTSD and physical symptoms (headaches and fatigue) among parents of critically ill children. 

Which caregivers are at highest risk? According to the article, people who had previously experienced anxiety or depression or had other traumas in their lives could be more prone to developing PTSD. 

 5- Not everyone gets PTSD after a trauma. 

While not all people who experience a traumatic event will develop PTSD, statistics show that 20% of survivors do. Experts don’t know why. Several people could go through the same experiences, but only one may develop PTSD symptoms.  

 According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people are at lower risk of PTSD if they: 

  • Seek support from friends, family, or support groups 
  • Learn to feel okay with how they dealt with a traumatic event 
  • Have a coping strategy for getting through and learning from a traumatic event 
  • Are prepared and able to respond to upsetting events as they occur, despite feeling fear 

The risk rises if the event: 

  • Is more severe 
  • Is violent 
  • Stretches over a long period 
  • Involves harm to oneself 
  • Results in losing a loved one 

 6- Symptoms don’t start right away. 

It’s normal to feel anxious, depressed, jumpy, or out of sorts immediately after a traumatic event. This is usually called acute stress disorder. You must experience the following within at least one month of the event for a PTSD diagnosis. There must be at least:  

  • One re-experiencing symptom, when you relive what happened 
  • One avoidance symptom, when you avoid or withdraw from a situation that stresses you and can cause a trauma-related symptom 
  • Two arousal/reactivity symptoms, such as irritability, feeling on edge 
  • Two cognition and mood symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or sleeping 

 7- PTSD can cause physical symptoms 

Most of us know that PTSD can cause anxiety and depression, but it can also cause physical pain and discomfort. Some of the most common physical PTSD symptoms include: 

  • Increased blood pressure 
  • Increased heart rate 
  • Fatigue 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Nausea 
  • Joint pain 
  • Headaches 
  • Pain in the back and elsewhere 

 8- There is treatment. 

If you or someone you care about develops PTSD, there is hope. There is no PTSD cure but for some people, it may be manageable to the point that symptoms rarely, if ever, appear again. If you do experience symptoms again, however, PTSD treatment may help control them and, perhaps, teach you how to avoid the triggers that brought them on.  

 The most common PTSD treatment is talk therapy, also called cognitive therapy. Working with a therapist, you learn how to identify negative beliefs and fears of the trauma recurring. Once you identify the negative beliefs, you learn how to navigate these feelings. 

 Exposure therapy is behavior therapy where you purposely expose yourself to the triggers while in a safe space. Your therapist would guide you through the experience and help you find ways to cope with the negative feelings. 

 Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy used with exposure. By moving your eyes in a specific pattern and exposing yourself to your triggers, your brain learns how to reprocess the stimuli and your reactions. 

 Medications for depression, anxiety, and insomnia also help manage PTSD symptoms. Some people only need to take the medications as they work through therapy, while others need it longer. 

 Getting PTSD Help 

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about has PTSD, there is help. The first step is to speak up. Talk to friends and family. You may find someone you know also has PTSD and can help refer you to the resources they used. You should also speak with your family doctor, who may make a referral to a therapist or group. If you don’t have a family doctor or you feel you aren’t getting the help you need, there are other options. Sepsis Alliance has listed the contact information for several agencies that might be helpful to you. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offers several suggestions on its PTSD: National Center for PTSD page.  

 Don’t give up. PTSD is manageable. 

 For more on PTSD and how it is related to sepsis, visit Sepsis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, part of the Sepsis and… library.