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Posttraumatic stress disorder

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What is Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

A person with PTSD has four main types of problems:

  • Reliving the traumatic event – through unwanted and recurring memories or vivid nightmares. You might get really upset when you’re reminded of what happened, or have intense physical reactions like sweating, pounding or racing heart, or rapid or irregular breathing.
  • Being overly alert or wound-up – you might have trouble sleeping or concentrating, feel irritable or short-tempered, become easily startled, or feel like you’re always on the lookout for signs of danger.
  • Avoiding reminders of the event – such as activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event.
  • Negative thoughts or feelings – you might feel flat, numb, afraid, or angry a lot of the time, have unrealistic expectations of yourself or other people, lose interest in day to day activities like work or playing with your kids, or feel cut off from your family and friends.

You are not alone

Traumatic experiences are common; about two thirds of Australians will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. In addition to traumas commonly faced by the general community such as car accidents and assaults, veterans can be exposed to a number of traumatic events during the course of their service. This places them at greater risk of developing PTSD than the general population. Between five and ten percent of the general community are likely to develop PTSD at some point in their lives [1 ,compared to between 5 and 20 percent of veterans (depending on the nature of their work and deploymet history). [2], [3]  Among current serving members, about 8 percent will suffer from PTSD in a given year, compared to 5 percent of the general community [4].

 

I was jumpy, sometimes aggressive, withdrawn and with a kind of numbness. A lot of numbness. I found it really hard to connect even with the person I loved the most. Like, rightly so, Kerry’s going, ‘Hang on, this isn’t nice. I don’t like where this is going.’ And I’m saying, ‘I don’t like it either but I don’t know what to do about it.’
There were nightmares and dreams. Constantly stressed, constantly wired, constantly depressed. Just always battling with life. I think that after something like Aceh, nothing else can get you excited anymore. Nothing else is interesting anymore; nothing else feels as intense and therefore it’s not as meaningful. Read more about Bell’s story - The important things (PDF, 1.88MB) 
 

 

The impact of PTSD on family relationships

Living with or loving someone who has PTSD can be difficult. People with PTSD often avoid social situations, feel detached, and have trouble expressing their emotions. As a result, they might be less affectionate or withdrawn and refuse to go on social outings or to family get togethers. They may also show less interest in intimacy or parenting children.

People with PTSD can also be more irritable and jumpy. Family members often talk about ‘walking on eggshells’ and being afraid of an outburst.  Family violence can be a problem for families of veterans with PTSD.

Research has shown that a veteran’s PTSD can also affect their family members’ mental health. Partners can experience anxiety, depression, social isolation and feelings of hopelessness, while younger children can develop behaviour problems such as acting out at school and adult children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general population. It is therefore important to seek support and get your PTSD treated as early as possible to minimise its impact on the whole family.

Find out more about resources and referral options for families.

PTSD and getting older

Many veterans first develop PTSD years after their traumatic experience, while others might find their existing PTSD gets worse as they age. There are a number of reasons for this happening.

For one thing, work and raising children can help distract from thoughts and feelings associated with the trauma. With more free time after retirement and once the kids have left home, it can be harder to avoid memories and easier to get into bad habits, like drinking too much. You might also find that strategies that used to help you cope with stress and push memories away aren’t working any more or are taking their toll. For example, you might not be able to drink enough to block out feelings.

The interaction between physical and mental health can also lead to PTSD getting worse with age. Over time, PTSD can have a negative effect on our physical health, and in turn, having to deal with more and more physical health issues as we get older can make us feel less able to cope. A small proportion of veterans will develop dementia as they age, which can result in unwanted memories of traumatic events becoming more frequent.

It is important to remember that PTSD can be treated, even if you’ve had it for a very long time. Find out more about where to go for help .

What treatments can help me?

Effective treatments for PTSD are available. These include both psychological treatment and medication. It is generally best to start with psychological treatment rather than use medication as the first and only solution to the problem, although your doctor may prescribe antidepressant medication to help you manage some of the feelings associated with your PTSD.

The most effective treatment for PTSD is trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy. This approach recognises that the way we think and act affects the way we feel. With the help of a therapist or counsellor, you will learn:

  • Ways to help digest and confront painful memories, thoughts and images so they don’t continue to distress you.
  • Strategies to help you get back into activities or visit places that you have avoided since the trauma because it has been too distressing.
  • Tools to help you relax when you start getting too anxious or wound up.

More information on treatment that works and getting the most out of your counsellor is available here: Information for people with ASD and PTSD, their families and careers (PDF) .

Where do I get help?

  • A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome PTSD, as he or she can make referrals for specialists, and support your efforts with medications if necessary.
  • This website has information on a range of professional care that is available to current and former serving members.
  • DVA provides group treatment programs for PTSD in ten hospitals across Australia.  These programs treat current as well as former serving members and veterans.  To find out more information about these programs you can contact the hospitals directly and speak to the PTSD program coordinators. A list of the programs and relevant contact details are available at www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au/trauma/ptsd_programs.html

Self-help resources

There are a number of resources you could use on your own or preferably together with your counsellor to help you address some of the symptoms of PTSD:

  • Anxiety Online: a 12-week online treatment program for PTSD that is offered as either self-help for no cost or therapist-assisted for a fee.
  • DVA PSTD Coach Australia mobile device app: includes strategies to assist self-management of PTSD symptoms. It is best used in the context of receiving treatment for PTSD, although it can help manage some symptoms and is available for Apple and Android products.
  • breathe2relax: this app can help you practice relaxation using a very effective breathing strategy. It is best used alongside receiving treatment for PTSD although it can help manage stress even if you are not in treatment.
  • About Face: includes video interviews with American veterans discussing PTSD and their experiences of seeking treatment.
Most of my life I thought people with mental problems were wimps or fakers who needed a good kick up the arse. I’m a soldier, that’s what I’m good at. Over the years I got promoted to warrant officer, had a lot of younger blokes looking up to me, expecting me to be a strong leader. And I was. I was bloody good. Until about a year ago." Read full case study here.
 

 

 

[1] Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. (2007). The Australian guidelines for the treatment of acute stress disorder (ASD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Melbourne: ACPMH.

[2] O'Toole, B. I., Marshall, R. P., Grayson, D. A., Schureck, R. J., Dobson, M., Ffrench, M., . . . Vennard, J. (1996). The Australian Vietnam veterans health study: III. Psychological health of Australian Vietnam veterans and its relationship to combat. International Journal of Epidemiology, 25, 331-339.

[3] Ikin, J. F., Sim, M. R., Creamer, M. C., Forbes, A. B., McKenzie, D. P., Kelsall, H. L., . . . Schwarz, H. (2004). War-related psychological stressors and risk of psychological disorders in Australian veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. British Journal of Psychiatry, 185, 116-126.

[4] McFarlane, A. C., Hodson, S. E., Van Hooff, M., & Davies, C. (2011). Mental health in the Australian Defence Force: 2010 ADF Mental Health and Wellbeing Study: Full report. Canberra: Department of Defence.

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