How to recognize, deal with, treat PTSD

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PHOENIX – PTSDpost-traumatic stress disorder – is one of the singular effects of war. It’s not just our servicemen and women who are living with this potentially paralyzing disorder, it’s their families, too.

Dr. Karen Kattar, a psychologist with the Phoenix VA Health Care System, stopped to chat with Kaley O’Kelley, whose father was diagnosed with PTSD.

The first step to treating PTSD is recognizing the problem.

“A lot of times the person with PTSD does not even know they have PTSD, but others around them can see it,” Kattar explained. There are three set of symptoms for PTSD.

“All of the symptoms of PTSD are survival techniques,” Kattar said.”They work really well in a dangerous environment, but they can be problematic back in the civilian work. They can start to interfere in relationships, with work, with school.”

First, the person has a lot of repeated memories of the trauma. Those memories, often in the form of nightmares, can spark extreme physical reactions.

“The second set of symptoms is that the person is on ‘red alert’ all the time,” Kattar said. “They feel like there’s danger around every corner and they have to take measure to stay safe.”

Those suffering from PTSD also might exhibit quite a bit of anger and irritability. That anger often comes from feelings of vulnerability in the presence of perceived danger.

The third set of symptoms – the key symptoms, according to Kattar – are the avoidance symptoms.

“Those are the symptoms where a person will do anything to not have to think about or be around anything that reminds them of the traumatic event,” Kattar explained.

The thing a person with PTSD needs most is unwavering support from family and friends.

Education is also essential in understanding and treating PTSD. Phoenix VA Health Care System offers two specific treatments, both of which are backed by years of research – Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and Prolong Exposure (PE).

“We’re using them every day with our veterans and they’re telling us that they work,” Kattar said.

CPT is a thinking and a writing therapy, which PE is a telling and a doing therapy.

“With CPT, we ask out veterans to look at their thinking,” Kattar said. Specifically the vets do writing assignments designed to teach them to examine what they tell themselves about the traumatic event, for example, “It’s my fault,” or “I should have done something different.” Such thoughts can trigger extremely strong emotions.

In PE, the vets tell their therapists about their traumatic event over and over in a safe environment.

“In essence, we’re wearing out the intense emotions of that event by the repetition,” Kattar said.

PE also involves having the veterans identify and actually do things they’ve been avoiding.