PTSD Among Adolescents

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly associated with soldiers of war. Horrified by events which they were forced to live through; the experience haunts their dreams and changes their personalities. War veterans often avoid talking about the events which triggered the PTSD but develop a hyper-vigilance in order to protect themselves from being trapped in another violent and powerless situation. However, the truth is that anyone who witnesses or personally experiences a traumatic life event can develop the disorder, even kids. Studies are revealing that young children and teenagers who don’t understand their own reactions to life, are sometimes trying to cope with PTSD. Kids who are living with undiagnosed PTSD will be giving clues that life is not as it should be. They may experience weight loss or gain, hair loss, disproportionate irritability or trouble sleeping. Many teens who struggle with PTSD say they have times when they feel outside of themselves, as though they are detached from others and life in general. Some researchers of the condition say that the chemical cortisol may play a key role in the way a person experiences PTSD. Normally, cortisol is helpful in activating a person’s ability to respond quickly to perceived dangers (an oncoming train, a ball thrown in your direction etc.). But, for the person with PTSD, something far less dangerous can trigger a similar response. When the brain feels continuously stressed, they posit, it could be that heavy cortisol releases actually deaden neurons which play a role in appropriate responses. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) researchers are looking at brain activity to better understand what biological causes may be at play. Whether by asking questions or flashing images which remind the person of the traumatic event, the researchers can see what precisely happens in the brain. Meanwhile, many teens are surprised to learn that what they are feeling is the same thing that combat veterans experience. But, just as with soldiers, not every child who experiences trauma will develop the condition. A few things seem to influence which children will develop PTSD. Proximity to the trauma is the first factor, but whether a child is living in an abusive home environment also seems to play a role. Whether or not the child has an effective support network also figures in as does any potential prior mental illness. Children and teens in these high-risk categories are far more likely to wind up with PTSD following a personal disaster. To date, talk therapy and exposure therapy are the most effective treatments available. Hopefully, with more research, new and better treatment programs will become available for the three to 15 percent of kids who will experience PTSD this year.

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