It was a diagnosis she never expected, and it fit her symptoms perfectly.
That’s how a 23-year-old Cedar Rapids woman — whom we’ll call Rebecca for confidentiality — describes learning that she has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental-health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.
In Rebecca’s case, it was brought on by the emotional and physical abuse she experienced at the hands of her former alcoholic boyfriend.
The greatest misconception about PTSD is that only people with military ties get it, says Rick Martenson of QC Counselor, in Davenport. Instead, Martenson says PTSD is caused by everything from auto accidents to divorce, and bankruptcy to floods.
“I’ve had patients apologize for thinking they might have PTSD when they’ve never been in the military,” Martenson says.
Before her diagnosis this past summer, Rebecca says she didn’t know much about PTSD. “I knew it was something serious that veterans dealt with, but I never had a reason to research the subject,” she says.
“I thought there was some scale or level of degree of trauma that caused PTSD. I didn’t think my issues were comparable to a veteran’s, so I thought I was just weak.”
Rebecca had struggled with depression and anxiety before, but she knew she was dealing with something else.
“I just kind of shut down,” she says. “I would try to be fine and then even the simplest of things would trigger this reaction where I would flash back to certain traumatic events. I couldn’t breathe. I would immediately break down and feel like it was all happening again.”
Rebecca had night terrors and chest pains. She started avoiding people and going out in public. She saw specialists for the chest pains only to be told there was nothing wrong. When a panic attack kept her from walking in the door on the first day of a new job, she sought help from her family physician. That’s when she was diagnosed with PTSD.
Rebecca began taking medication, and started weekly counseling. She is grateful her doctor figured out what was wrong, and she is feeling better.
“I wish I could say it all went away, but I still look around everywhere I go,” Rebecca says. “I can function and go to work most days, and I started going out and surrounding myself with people. But there are still things that trigger it.”
Martenson — who has treated people who have experienced trauma for 15 years and has started a clinic that focuses on PTSD — says he assesses clients for three things: avoidance of people, places or reminders; extreme watchfulness or exaggerated startle response; and disturbing memories that come back during waking or sleeping time.
Other symptoms include panic attacks, sleeplessness, nightmares, self-destructive thoughts and actions, loneliness, anger problems, substance abuse and memory problems.
“You would be amazed at the number of people that primary-care physicians send in to see me that report emotional or physical problems, but are really suffering from untreated PTSD.”
Martenson says if he sees patients with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, migraines, gastric problems or substance abuse, he always asks if something really bad happened to them at some point in their lives.
While many of his patients who have experienced trauma are prescribed antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines and sleeping aids, Martenson maintains that no pill has been designed to treat PTSD. Instead, the treatment he has found to be most effective is a type of psychotherapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, the gold standard for PTSD treatment.
The results of untreated PTSD are a “huge drain” on our medical resources, he says. “There is little chance of treatment for depression or anxiety being successful if they are the result of untreated PTSD,” he says, adding that he wishes primary care physicans would ask their patients whether they’ve experienced anything bad that continues to bother them.
“Effective treatment is available,” Martenson says. At his clinic, treatment typically includes four sessions. “You can stop hurting this week.”