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Emotional Health

Recognizing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Risks of Being Left Untreated

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in a person who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as physical or sexual assault, community violence or a life-threatening illness. And while 7% to 8% of the population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, research has shown that rates of those with PTSD symptoms are higher among those living in impoverished communities, as well as those who are African American and Hispanic. Certain individuals may also have a genetic risk, such as a family history of anxiety or depression.

What to Look For

Individuals with PTSD are often hypervigilant, and may have a heightened reaction to stressors in the environment. PTSD changes your reaction to stress, including the way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones released in response to stress.

Historically, PTSD most often has been associated with combat or military service, but it can occur after any type of traumatic event, such as:

  • Childhood abuse
  • Combat exposure
  • Physical violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Some type of accident
Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD.
— Inger Burnett-Zeigler, PhD

Symptoms for PTSD fall in four separate categories:

  • Intrusive thoughts. You may have re-occurring dreams or flashbacks that cause you to re-experience the event in some capacity.
  • Avoidance. You may steer clear of activities or situations that could trigger distressing memories, detach yourself from other people or stop pursuing interests you previously had.
  • Negative thoughts. You may experience feelings of guilt, shame or anger.
  • Arousal and reactive symptoms. You may be easily startled or agitated, or behave recklessly or dangerously.

“A lot of times, people don’t recognize that they’re experiencing these symptoms,” says Northwestern Medicine Clinical Psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler, PhD. “It’s difficult to put your finger on why you are worried all the time or startle easily, but it’s related to having experienced a traumatic event in the past and worrying about something bad happening again.”

Not only do these symptoms impact your quality of life, but if left untreated, certain situations, people, locations, smells or news reports of violence can stimulate negative feelings.

The Risk of Going Undetected and Untreated

Dr. Burnett-Zeigler’s research highlights PTSD and depression in underserved communities in Chicago. The study’s sample looked at an impoverished Chicago neighborhood that is ranked No. 7 for property crime, No. 26 for quality of life crime and No. 35 for violent crime among 77 Chicago neighborhoods. The study found that of the women in this neighborhood who experienced trauma, 71% had PTSD symptoms. This is a staggering amount, considering only 20% of women in the general population who are exposed to a traumatic event develop PTSD.

Because PTSD symptoms can go unnoticed, by both the individual experiencing them and other medical professionals, individuals often do not get the treatment they need. “Much of the current conversation around trauma exposure in Chicago is focused on men, but women are twice as likely to have a history of sexual assault or childhood abuse,” explains Dr. Burnett-Zeigler. “It may not be their first exposure to a traumatic event, which increases the risk for PTSD.”

Although Dr. Burnett-Zeigler’s study was a concentrated sample, it serves as a reminder that individuals may not be receiving the care they need because of the stigma of mental illness, shame associated with the trauma or abuse, and lack of access to care.

If you have any PTSD symptoms, consult your primary care physician or mental health professional. Dr. Burnett-Zeigler also encourages you to seek out resources readily available to you, such as a church or support group.

“Recognize you are not alone,” she says.
Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, PhD
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Associate Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Psychology
Does Not Schedule or Accept New Patients
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