Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition characterized by a wide range of symptoms following a traumatic or life-threatening event or series of events. The symptoms of PTSD can range from avoidance and disengagement from life to agitation and hypervigilance long after the traumatic event or process has occurred. Many will re-experience aspects of the traumatic experience, such as intrusive and distressing memories of the event, or sensory/perceptual recurrences (such as the sounds, sights, and smells of the environment in which the trauma occurred). Often, the life of the individual suffering post-traumatic symptoms is overwhelmed by the pervasive and insidious nature of the symptoms. Poor psychosocial functioning is common, and in serious cases, suicidal thoughts or acts do occur. Early identification of the condition and assertive treatment are therefore warranted, to limit the progression of the condition and associated decline in functioning.
PTSD is diagnosed through a comprehensive clinical evaluation, in which all aspects of the person’s suffering are explored. While there are some variations in the way symptoms manifest, depending on the type of traumatic event or process experienced, there are some common themes in how to approach treatment. Generally speaking, the goal of treatment is to allow the person’s nervous system to reset to a normal degree of activation and function in a safe environment, within the context of a therapeutic relationship between the patient and psychiatrist. Psychiatric medications can be helpful to address specific symptoms, but medications alone may be insufficient. Depending on the individual, direct exploration of the traumatic event or process can be helpful in re-associating the memories within a safe and therapeutic space. There is also exciting research underway into the use of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and other psychedelic plant medicines, with promising early results, suggesting that we may one day have access to a wider range of robust treatments that may address the individual and collective burden of PTSD.