Dr Robert London

Many sources of PTSD are cause for Concern

Against the backdrop of long COVID, gun violence, political and economic turmoil, it is important that clinicians understand how to recognize and treat PTSD.


Publish Date: July 20th, 2022

A few weeks ago, right after 19 children and two adults were killed by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, Americans were really on edge. Many people I know became hypervigilant while going about activities previously thought of as routine, such as waiting for a subway or going to a grocery store.

On top of that, we are still facing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite vaccines and therapeutics, the United States is still losing more than 300 people each day to the virus. Many people who have tested positive have continued to experience debilitating long-haul symptoms many months after testing negative, and I believe not knowing what your future life will

bring from this terrible illness could lead some to post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to constant updates about COVID, we are getting almost daily reports about monkeypox. In New York state, medical professionals and institutions receive regular, almost weekly, information about the spread of influenza. But where are the reports and treatment approaches for PTSD, which would not only increase awareness but also lead to more care?

Some might believe that I am obsessed with PTSD, since I’ve written a great deal on the subject, particularly “under diagnosed” PTSD. The key question I have is: How can clinicians treating patients NOT consider that we are amid an epidemic of PTSD, including a delayed-onset form of the illness?

We know the signs and symptoms of PTSD. They include flashbacks, intrusive recollections, physical distress related to stimuli related to the trauma, insomnia, social isolation, avoidance of certain situations, negative thinking, and hyperarousal – coupled with anxiety and depression. PTSD can be a great masquerader. It can be triggered by many events, large and small, and all too often will masquerade as general anxiety or existential despair and depression. Too often, PTSD is undiagnosed or unrecognized completely. PTSD is also a costly disease that is an enormous economic burden on the U.S. economy.

As clinicians, we must be aware of the more subtle events that may trigger PTSD. We must think beyond ICD codes and DSM criteria and realize that each individual processes an event or a series of events differently. For example, seriously ill people in ICUs or undergoing critical care have been known to experience PTSD well beyond their physical recovery ( J Crit Care. 2017 Dec. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrc.2017.06.014). Years after the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center disaster, many are still suffering from PTSD symptoms (Biol Psychiatry. 2020 May 1. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2020.02.817).

Again, in some cases, not knowing what the future may bring regarding life itself can lead to PTSD. I have treated patients who have lost jobs and experienced devastating social and financial losses, which were perceived as a separation from “life as they know it.” These can be precursors to PTSD for some who are sensitive to the disorder. Intergenerational trauma is also a real phenomenon to which we must be attuned. I have treated two adult children of Holocaust

survivors, both born in America well after World War II, who developed PTSD after hearing family recollections over and over about the brutality suffered by relatives, combined with watching films about people sent to concentration camps.

Both of those patients self-diagnosed their symptoms as depression. Research shows that Holocaust traumatization can affect three generations ( J Anxiety Disord. 2021 Jun. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2021.102401).

In light of the high incidence of traumatic events affecting millions directly, more codified treatment approaches are needed that can be used both for individuals and for those in group settings. To date, the best treatment rests with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and guided imagery coupled with relaxation techniques and the various types of in vivo exposure therapy, which I prefer to in vitro or flooding care. In terms of medication management, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only two antidepressant medications for PTSD, sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil), although other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have been used off- label, and prazosin, a hypertensive medication, has been used off-label for PTSD-related insomnia and nightmares (Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 2012 Mar 22. doi: 10.4088/PCC.11r01222). Thus, the limited number of choices for medication management

means more research is needed so that more medications are developed that are more precisely directed at PTSD treatment.

Implications for society at large

In a recent article published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (2022 Apr 25. doi: 10.4088/JCP.21m14116), authors Lori L. Davis and colleagues point out that the economic burden of PTSD goes beyond health care costs and rivals the costs of other mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. In the process, Dr. Davis and colleagues note, unemployment caused by job loss, disability, homelessness, substance use, disordered care, as well as premature mortality, all contribute to this severe burden, going beyond PTSD itself.

This study shows that the annual economic burden of PTSD is $232 billion. Most of that burden is attributed to the civilian population, which they suggest to be $189.5 billion, or 82%. After reading that article, it became clear to me that my “obsession” with PTSD is not really an obsession at all. Rather, it is a true concern that, against the backdrop of long COVID, gun violence, political and economic turmoil, and other factors, it is important that clinicians understand how to recognize and treat PTSD. The stakes have never been higher.

Dr. London is a practicing psychiatrist and has been a newspaper columnist for 35 years, specializing in and writing about short-term therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and guided imagery. He is author of “Find Freedom Fast” (New York: Kettlehole Publishing, 2019). He has no conflicts of interest.