By Kathy Hubbard
Combat. School shootings. Bombings. Rape. Sudden death. Mass murders. Terrorist attacks. Abuse. Devastating accidents. Natural disaster. Name it, experience it, suffer for it. And, that suffering is called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
“Most people recover from traumatic events,” the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says. “But, some experience severe distress, anxiety, and depression for months or even years. They frequently re-experience the event through intrusive thoughts, upsetting reminders, or nightmares. Relaxing, concentrating, or sleeping becomes difficult. They often feel detached or estranged from loved ones. These are symptoms of PTSD.”
AADA also says that PTSD is a serious, potentially debilitating condition. The National Institute of Mental Health agrees. They say that symptoms will typically start within three months of the traumatic event, but it’s not unusual for them to show up many years later.
“Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD,” NIMH explains. “The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.”
An adult will be diagnosed with PTSD if they meet the following criteria for at least one month: at least one re-experiencing symptom; at least one avoidance symptom; at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms and at least two cognition and mood symptoms.
Let’s explain. A re-experiencing symptom includes “Flashbacks – reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating; bad dreams; frightening thoughts.”
Avoidance symptoms are relatively self-explanatory. It means that the person will stay away from places, events or objects that make them re-live the event. It also includes avoiding thoughts and feelings about the traumatic experience.
“Arousal and reactivity symptoms include: being easily startled; feeling tense or ‘on edge;’ having difficulty sleeping, and having angry outbursts,” NIMH says. “Arousal symptoms are usually constant, instead of being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic events.”
Cognition and mood symptoms include losing interest in activities that once gave pleasure; trouble remembering the details of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about oneself and others and distorted feelings like blame and guilt.
“Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults,” NIMH explains. “In very young children (under 6) these symptoms can include: wetting the bed after learning how to use the toilet; forgetting how to talk; acting out the scary event during playtime; being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult.”
AADA estimates that close to 8 million Americans over 18 suffer from PTSD. “Sixty-seven percent of people exposed to mass violence have been shown to develop PTSD, a higher rate than those exposed to natural disasters or other types of traumatic events.”
Psychology Today ran an article in 2011 by Tracy Stecker, PhD, describing the evidence-based treatments available for those with PTSD. Stecker’s practice is centered on military personnel returning from war zones. She points out that access to proper care can be a challenge, not necessarily because of the lack of resources, but often the person’s reluctance to seek treatment.
“It can be hard to admit that you are struggling and need help. It can be even harder to admit that someone who was never at war could help with symptoms developed in war,” Stecker said.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and medication therapies have had proven successes. With anecdotal success is adding to the treatment plan (drum roll here): Dogs.
Stecker explained that there are several reasons why dogs can aid those with PTSD. They are: 1. Dogs are vigilant; 2. Dogs are protective; 3. Dogs respond well to authoritative relationships; 4. Dogs love unconditionally; 5. Dogs help to relearn trust, and 6. Dogs help to remember feelings of love.
“The best part is that it doesn’t seem to matter if the dog is a Pit bull or a Chihuahua or a plain old mutt,” Stecker said.
The Veteran’s Administration’s website agrees with Stecker that dogs can play a role in PTSD treatment. But they have a caveat: “Dogs can help you deal with some parts of living with PTSD, but they are not a substitute for effective PTSD treatment.”
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at email@example.com.