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A soldier, just back from the war in Iraq, is haunted by nightmares of bodies on the battlefield. A woman keeps replaying in her mind the day that she was brutally raped. A man has flashbacks of the time that he was beaten by his step-father. These incidents are the result of stress—a special kind of stress. It is a stress so overpowering, so overwhelming that it is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The important thing to remember about post-traumatic stress disorder is that it is far more common than one might think. First brought to the public's attention following the Vietnam War, post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts everyone from earthquake victims to survivors of kidnapping. Often, PTSD, as it is known, occurs when an individual's life has been threatened, or the life of someone close to him or her has been jeopardized. More than five million people are believed to be affected by the disorder.

There are a number of tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. For instance, an individual might experience continual flashbacks or nightmares. He or she may experience feelings of irritability or frustration. He or she might have an exaggerated startle response, such as jumping when hearing a noise in an otherwise quiet room. He or she may lose interest in work, relationships, or other things that used to be enjoyed. The symptoms may become especially pronounced when the anniversary of the traumatic event rolls around.

Although stories of soldiers with PTSD are well-known, women are actually more susceptible to the disorder. Also, there is evidence that there may be a genetic predisposition for PTSD. PTSD can lead to major depression, alcoholism, or drug abuse. If a specific person was responsible for the trauma—say a husband, boyfriend, or neighbor—the after-effects may be particularly bad.

It is interesting to note that a specific sound or smell can trigger a flashback for an individual suffering from PTSD. This is part of the reason that the disorder is so troubling. In essence, the individual has difficulty escaping the memory of what happened to him or her. The recurring nightmares and flashbacks are signs that the individual has not been able to process the memory appropriately.

An individual afflicted with PTSD may feel a sense of hopelessness. Since his or her ordeal seems to be repeating itself, he or she may find it difficult to come to terms with the event. This is why PTSD is such a debilitating condition. However, it is important to recognize the fact that there is hope for those struggling with this disorder. Through talk therapy and medication, an individual can learn how to properly process the traumatic memory. The nightmares and flashbacks eventually disappear, as the individual receives a new leash on life.

It should be pointed out that there is no instant fix or cure for PTSD. It can haunt people for months, if not years. It is a mental condition that is still shrouded in a great deal of secrecy. There are also many misunderstandings about the disorder. It may cause someone to miss work, or to lose his or her job entirely. It can wreck marriages and other close relationships. A great deal of additional research needs to be done in order to adequately address the problem of PTSD.

In the meantime, there are specific steps you can take to lessen the likelihood that you will suffer from the disorder. If you have become the victim of a traumatic event, seek help immediately. Discuss the incident with your family doctor and ask him or her for a referral to a therapist and psychiatrist. Don't wait until your symptoms are out of control before you seek help. While this type of stress is not curable, it is entirely treatable. The important thing for you to remember is that you are not alone, that there are a number of mental health experts who stand ready to help you. Also, try to think of yourself as a survivor rather than as a victim. You may find you are better able to cope with the stress that way. Also, recognize the fact that the incident, though traumatic, has passed. Once you realize that you are unlikely again to go through such a horror, you may be able to put the incident into the proper perspective

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