Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a terrifying, debilitating, and life-altering illness. It develops after a traumatic event occurs in an individual’s life, wreaking havoc on their mental and emotional health. While it’s often associated with veterans, anyone can experience PTSD after a devastating personal experience. Car accidents, assaults, abuse, neglect, and the sudden death of a loved one are some of the most common causes of PTSD. It’s estimated that one in 11 people will be affected by PTSD across the course of their lives. While PTSD is classified as a mental illness, the impacts of the disease can significantly affect a person’s physical wellbeing, as well. This is what it’s like to live with PTSD, including the mental and physical symptoms that come with the illness.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe and debilitating mental health condition. Although it was originally classified as an anxiety disorder, the DSM-5 was revised to classify it as a trauma-related disorder. The disease is triggered by a traumatic event in a person’s life which an individual may struggle to cope with or move past. While some people are able to heal and move forward after jarring life experiences, people who develop PTSD may struggle to recover from the event, experiencing extreme symptoms as a result of their trauma. PTSD can manifest days or years after a traumatic occurrence, or even develop as a result of long-term trauma (known by some medical professionals as complex PTSD). While the condition is not always taken seriously, it often severely interrupts the lives of sufferers, some of which require hospitalization, residential programs, or even service animals to cope with the illness.

The DSM-5 presented an amended criterion for PTSD. The required criterion includes the sufferer experiencing symptoms spanning more than one month, the illness producing a functional impairment in their lives, and the symptoms of the condition not being triggered by medication or drug use. Other categories for criterion are identifying an individual’s stressors, intrusion symptoms, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and moods, and alterations in arousal and activity. Due to the extensive and exhausting symptoms of PTSD, the illness can take a massive toll on one’s physical and emotional wellbeing, including altering the structure of their brain and bodies.

The stunning mental symptoms

The most widely recognized mental symptom of PTSD is what is known as intrusive memories. Intrusive memories are the ways that a traumatic event is revisited or re-experienced by an individual. This can manifest in a number of unsettling ways, including an individual experiencing a surge of distressing memories, extreme and vivid flashbacks, disturbing nightmares about the event, and/or severe emotional and physical reactions to reminders of the trauma. Another symptom is avoidance, which includes avoiding a discussion of the traumatic event, avoiding places and people, and/or avoiding negative internal and external reminders of the experience.

An individual’s mood and thoughts can also take a severe nosedive. PTSD can result in feelings of hopelessness, bitterness, and/or self-esteem issues. It can also wreak havoc in one’s interpersonal life, making it difficult for them to maintain relationships, trust those close to them, and connect with friends, family, and loved ones. This can be worsened by struggles to feel uplifting emotions or optimism and experience connectivity to the world around them. An individual with PTSD will also struggle with arousal symptoms, such as hypersensitivity to sound and lights, being easily irritated or startled, having difficulty staying focused, and/or experiencing rage and shame.

A sufferer may dive into self-destructive behaviors, such as drinking, drug use, or binging/restricting eating habits. PTSD can also be accompanied by comorbid disorders such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders, making juggling the symptoms of PTSD even more difficult. While the mental symptoms of PTSD are debilitating as is, the physical symptoms can add even more frustration to the person suffering from the illness.

The jarring physical symptoms

Although the emotional symptoms of PTSD are more often acknowledged than the physical symptoms, the physical effects can be equally as disturbing and debilitating. The panic attacks and flashbacks that people with the condition experience can result in intense physical reactions, such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, hot flashes, and shaky limbs. People with PTSD may also experience intense bursts of adrenaline, as adrenaline is triggered by the fight-or-flight response. Due to the hypervigilance and trauma-related responses of PTSD sufferers, they are likely to experience adrenaline surges accompanied by an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, nausea, and sweating.

PTSD is also associated with other chronic illnesses, especially because the illness makes it difficult to avoid negative physical behaviors and/or get out to exercise. Whether an individual is drinking to cope or staying inside all day, a lack of movement and self-destructive behaviors can lead to heart disease, diabetes, chronic pain, and other chronic illnesses. People with PTSD may also struggle to sleep through the night due to nightmares or severe feelings of anxiety before resting, developing insomnia, sleep apnea, and other sleep-related conditions. Since sleep is essential to functioning during the day, sleep deprivation can take a toll on a sufferer’s physical wellbeing across time.

Getting help for PTSD

The physical and mental symptoms of PTSD can often feel endless and incurable for people who are suffering. However, treatment is available to help them live productive, hopeful lives. From therapy to medication, treatments for PTSD can help ease the symptoms for sufferers so they can resume their lives after developing the trauma-based condition. If you, yourself, are struggling with PTSD, consider reaching out to a doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, or other professional to begin to work on healing. Building a support system, asking for help, and developing a treatment plan are a few ways to start recovering from the life-altering condition.