Posttraumatic stress disorder

Posttraumatic stress refers to a group of reactions that can occur after someone has experienced a traumatic event. It's common in the Australian community, not just veterans. Effective therapies are available to minimise its impact on you and your family.

Time to read: 8 minutes

What is posttraumatic stress?

There are four main symptoms of posttraumatic stress (also known as PTSD):

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event through unwanted and recurring memories or vivid nightmares. You might get upset when you’re reminded of what happened, or have intense physical reactions like sweating, pounding or racing heart, or rapid or irregular breathing.
  2. Avoiding reminders of the event such as activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event.
  3. Negative thoughts or feelings that leave you feeling constantly flat, numb, afraid or angry. You may develop 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.
  4. Being overly alert or wound-up can make it hard to sleep or concentrate. You may feel irritable or short-tempered, become easily startled, or feel like you’re always on the lookout for signs of danger.

You are not alone

Traumatic experiences are common. About two-thirds of Australians will experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lives.

In addition to traumas commonly faced by the general community such as car accidents and assaults, veterans are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events during the course of their service.

Around 5 to 10 per cent of the general community is likely to develop posttraumatic stress , compared with 5 to 20 per cent of veterans (depending on the nature of their work and deployment history).

Among current serving members, about 8 per cent will suffer from posttraumatic stress in a given year, compared with 5 per cent of the general community

RECOGNISE

Read Bell’s story...

I was jumpy, sometimes aggressive, withdrawn and with a kind of numbness.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. There were nightmares and dreams. I was constantly stressed, constantly wired, constantly depressed - just always battling with life.

After serving in Aceh, nothing else could get me excited anymore. Nothing else is interesting anymore; nothing else feels as intense and therefore it’s not as meaningful.

Read Bell’s story - reconnecting after trauma

The impact on family relationships

Living with or loving someone who has posttraumatic stress can be difficult.

People with posttraumatic stress often avoid social situations, feel detached and may have trouble expressing their emotions. They might be less affectionate or withdrawn, show less interest in intimacy or parenting children.

People with posttraumatic stress can also be more irritable and jumpy. Family members often talk about ‘walking on eggshells’ and being afraid of an outburst.

Family violence can also be a problem for families of veterans with posttraumatic stress.

Research has shown that posttraumatic stress can also affect the mental health of members of a veteran’s family.

Partners can experience anxiety, depression, social isolation and feelings of hopelessness. Younger children can develop behaviour problems such as acting out at school.

Adult children are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. It is important to seek support and treatment for posttraumatic stress as early as possible to minimise its impact on you and your family.

Find out more about resources and referral options for families.

Posttraumatic stress and getting older

Some veterans develop posttraumatic stress years after their traumatic experience, while others might find their existing posttraumatic stress gets worse as they age.

This is perfectly normal.

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 an 'empty nest', 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 find that alcohol no longer blocks out feelings and actually makes matters worse by disrupting your sleep.

The interaction between physical and mental health can also lead to posttraumatic stress getting worse with age.

Over time, posttraumatic stress can have a negative effect on your physical health. Having to deal with more physical health issues as you age can make it harder to cope. Dementia may also result in unwanted memories of traumatic events becoming more frequent.

It is important to remember that posttraumatic stress can be treated, even if you’ve had it for a very long time. Start with your GP or call Open Arms on 1800 011 046

What treatments can help me?

Effective psychological therapy and medication treatments for posttraumatic stress are available.

It is generally best to start with psychological therapy rather than medication, although your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant and other medications to help you manage some feelings associated with posttraumatic stress.

The most effective treatment for posttraumatic stress is trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 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.
  • Tools to help you relax when you start getting too anxious or wound up.

Recovery after Trauma - A Guide for People with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PDF) provides more information about posttraumatic stress and its treatment.

Where do I get help?

A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome any mental health concerns, as they can refer you to specialists, and, if necessary, support your efforts with medications. If you are a Veteran, ask for a Veteran Health Check.
Open Arms counsellors and staff understand veteran and military culture. We can provide the specialised support and care you need.
This program will help you to understand the possible impact of trauma, and teaches you strategies and skills to help you to manage its impact on you and your family.

Trauma recovery programs

DVA providesTrauma Recovery Programs for veterans with posttraumatic stress and related problems. These hospital-based programs treat former serving members and veterans. To find out more about these programs, contact the hospitals directly and speak to the program coordinators. A list of the programs and relevant contact details are available here.

Self-help resources

The PTSD Coach Australia app provides education, information and strategies to assist self-management of posttraumatic stress symptoms. PTSD Coach is available to download free wherever you get your apps.

TAKE ACTION

Manage posttraumatic stress as symptoms arise

Counselling is available to veterans and their family through Open Arms - Veterans & Families Counselling. Open Arms provides free and confidential counselling support. To learn how Open Arms can help with posttraumatic stress disorder, call 1800 011 046.

Use the tools available in the PTSD Coach Australia app to manage your symptoms:

  • The Deep Breathing and Progressive Relaxation tool can help you when you are feeling anxious.
  • The RID tool can be used when you are feeling triggered by past trauma.
  • The Take Time Out tool is useful when you are overwhelmed by emotions.

The PTSD Coach Australia app is best used when you are also receiving treatment for posttraumatic stress.

Take the time to look through the tools when you are feeling calm and practice the ones that are most relevant for you. With practice, you will be able to use the app to manage your symptoms as they arise.

Manage your posttraumatic stress symptoms by Improving Your Sleep.

The High Res website offers a range of self-help resources that help serving and ex-serving ADF members and their families manage stress and build resilience. Check out some of the tools that you can use:

Use the Healthy Sleeping tool and answer questions about your typical sleeping behaviours for tailored advice and tips to improve your sleep, as well as optimising your mental and physical functioning.

Get active

Physical activity can help you to reduce stress and anxiety associated with posttraumatic stress and boost your mood.

Use the Physical Activities tool to find activities, set goals and plan how to deal with anything that could prevent you from reaching those goals.

Relax your body and mind

Posttraumatic stress can leave you feeling on edge and wound up all the time. This can lead to muscle tension, aches, pains and fatigue.

Use the Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool to learn how to tense and relax each of the muscle groups in your body so you can calm down and think clearly when you’re feeling on edge or anxious.

The Controlled Breathing tool teaches you how to slow your breathing rate.

These tools will help you to feel calmer and release tension from your body.

These tools are also available on the High Res app to use on the go.

  • Mental health Online: An internet-based treatment clinic providing access to information, clinical assessment and treatment programs.
  • About Face: includes video interviews with American veterans discussing posttraumatic stress and their experiences of seeking treatment.

RECOGNISE

Read Mick's story...

Most of my life I thought people with mental problems were wimps or fakers who needed a good kick up the bum. 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 the full case study.