Tarheel Health Portal/PTSD
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental condition that millions of Americans are currently diagnosed with. Symptoms of PTSD include hyperarousal, claustrophobia, mentally reliving a traumatic event, and insomnia. For PTSD to affect a person, that person must have experienced a traumatic event, which is defined as something that is or is perceived to be extremely harmful or life-threatening. The kind of event that triggers PTSD varies from person to person, but common examples include sexual assault, car crashes, disasters, and combat experience. Furthermore, not all people who experience trauma develop PTSD, but certain risk factors can increase the chances. Multiple instances of trauma are known to increase the risk of developing PTSD. PTSD has been linked to a reduction in the size of the hippocampus. A similar reduction in size is observed in people who have experienced stress over a long period of time. In these cases, stress is different from trauma because it is a response to pressures not as severe as trauma, but over a longer period of time. As such, the evidence suggests that experiencing stress over a long period of time may be a risk factor for an individual to develop PTSD.
The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale complies a list of common lifestyle changes or events associated with an increase in stress, and ranks them for their stressfulness. An individual may use this scale to sum the stressfulness of recent events in his or her life to determine the degree of risk that stress may pose to developing an illness, psychological or otherwise. There are actually two scales, one for adults and one for non-adults, and both scales contain events that may be attributable to the college lifestyle. The events and values represented in these scales do not represent a perfect fit for everyone, rather, they are a compiled average. Regardless, these scales may be very useful for a stressed individual in determining how stressed they are and where the stress is coming from.
Classification of PTSD
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies PTSD in terms of its empirically determined causes and effects, which allows medical professionals to diagnose cases of PTSD based on these standards. Certain criteria for the diagnosis of PTSD have been altered since the last issue of the DSM, with the revised list appearing in the fifth edition in 2013. As such, it is clear that PTSD is more difficult to classify than once thought, and is likely still not fully understood. As such, if a person suspects that their stress level is higher than normal, it is important to meet with a medical professional to discuss this concern, as the DSM-5 is best interpreted by qualified professionals.
The Issue For College Students
It is important for college students to be aware of the connection between long-term stress and PTSD, because the college lifestyle is one that is tied to both long-term stress, and several of the most common kinds of trauma. Students in college can experience stress in many ways, including social stresses such as relationship and financial stress, and academic stress. As a student, it is difficult to avoid the pressures that cause these stresses, but stress can be minimized by developing coping and relaxation skills. Along with stress, college students are at risk for experiencing certain kinds of trauma, most notably trauma related to sexual assault or combat experience. Sexual assault is undeniably a problem for college students of any gender or sexual identity, but is most commonly associated with assault against women. Studies have shown that twenty-nine percent of women who experience physical assault experienced symptoms of PTSD at some point in life, and that twenty-five percent of college women experience completed or attempted rape on campus. Combat experience is another source of trauma that is attributable to the UNC student veteran population. Studies have shown that for men, thirty-nine percent of those exposed to combat would experience symptoms of PTSD at some point in life. Aside from these two more common kinds of trauma, there are others that aren't as easy to predict for college students, but which, when combined with the long-term stress associated with college, could increase the risk of developing PTSD as well.
Stress Management on Campus
At UNC there are many resources for people who would like to better manage their stress, or understand where their stress is coming from. Campus Health Services offer counseling and psychological care in their facility for individuals concerned about their own health or the health of someone they know. They also offer tips and strategies on their website (below) for managing stress on your own, from advice on muscle relaxation to how to manage academic stress.
The Carolina Women's Center (link below) also has talk therapy sessions and resources for individuals who may be experiencing stress related to relationships, sexual health and sexual violence. The Carolina Women's Center also works with other organizations such as Project Dinah (link below), each offering their own resources and help for people who have experienced relationship abuse. Both the CWC and Project Dinah offer confidential support for people of differing gender and sexual identities.
The UNC Student and Academic Services Buildings (SASB) also offer resources targeted towards managing many kind of stress. Their website (below) includes links to free support resources for managing academic and social stress, academic success of students with ADHD/LD, and an LGBTQ center.
Further Readings/Outside Resources
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) [Internet]: National Institute of Mental Health; c2015 [cited 2015 3/28]. Available from: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml .
- Breslau N, Chilcoat HD, Kessler RC, Davis GC. 2014. Previous exposure to trauma and PTSD effects of subsequent trauma: Results from the detroit area survey of trauma. .
- Villarreal G. and King CY. 2001. Brain imaging in posttraumatic stress disorder. Seminars in clinical neuropsychiatry. 131 p.
- Gilbertson MW, Shenton ME, Ciszewski A, Kasai K, Lasko NB, Orr SP, Pitman RK. 2002. Smaller hippocampal volume predicts pathologic vulnerability to psychological trauma. Nat Neurosci 5(11):1242-7.
- De Kloet ER, Joëls M, Holsboer F. 2005. Stress and the brain: From adaptation to disease. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6(6):463-75.
- Kim JJ and Yoon KS. 1998. Stress: Metaplastic effects in the hippocampus. Trends Neurosci 21(12):505-9.
- http://www.everfi.com/everfi-haven-infographic Everfi-Haven (2014).