Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can be brought on by a traumatic event. PTSD can happen after a life-threatening situation, such as breast cancer diagnosis or cancer recurrence. PTSD can affect your ability to cope with life's daily chores and inconveniences and make it difficult to function.
Symptoms of PTSD can include:
- nightmares or flashbacks about the cancer experience
- continuously focusing on the cancer experience
- avoiding people, places, and events that remind you of the experience
- trouble sleeping
- extreme irritableness
- intense feelings of fear
- being overly excitable
- feeling helpless or hopeless
- shame or guilty feelings
- bouts of crying
- feeling emotionally numb
- sadness or depression
- loss of appetite
- trouble maintaining personal relationships
- self-destructive behavior (alcohol or drug abuse, for example)
- memory problems
- concentration problems
- being startled or frightened easily
- getting no joy from activities you used to enjoy
PTSD symptoms usually appear within 3 months of a traumatic event, last longer than a month, and severely affect daily life. In some cases, symptoms don't appear for years after the traumatic event.
To prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse, it's important to tell your doctor about your feelings right away. If you’re thinking about harming yourself or someone else, call 911 right away or ask family or friends to help you.
PTSD treatment can include medications, such as antidepressants, and therapy to help you learn ways to cope with situations that may trigger traumatic stress.
The following suggestions can help if you’re coping with PTSD brought on by breast cancer:
- Stick to your PTSD treatment plan. Time and patience can really help your coping abilities.
- Get enough sleep. Being well rested can reduce stress levels.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can reduce stress and increase the release of endorphins, a chemical made by body that promotes good feelings.
- Eat a healthy diet to give your body all the nutrients it needs.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine -- they can increase stress levels.
- Don’t use alcohol or drugs to cope. Self-medicating can be dangerous and prolong the healing process.
- Learn new habits. Practice a new hobby or go for a stroll around the block when you start to feel anxious.
- Surround yourself with supportive people and try to discuss your feelings with them.
- Consider joining a support group to find others in your situation.
Some complementary and holistic medicine techniques have been shown to ease anxiety, stress, fear, and depression, including:
- guided imagery
- music therapy
- progressive muscle relaxation
- support groups
- tai chi
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder After a Cancer Diagnosis
Kelly Grosklags is a licensed clinical social worker and a board-certified diplomat in clinical social work. She earned a fellowship in grief counseling from the American Academy of Health Care Professionals and is the author of A Comforted Heart: An Oncology Psychotherapist Perspective on Finding Meaning and Hope During Illness and Loss.
Listen to the podcast to hear Kelly talk about what PTSD is, what causes it, and some of the most common symptoms of PTSD in people diagnosed with cancer.