In a recent blog post, I talked about the experiences of combat veterans during the Salvadoran Civil War.  I have also listened to Salvadorans tell war stories that involve confronting death, seeing dead bodies, and experiencing sexual assault and physical abuse.

While these are unpleasant experiences that we often do not want to think about, it is important to understand that these experiences can have a long term effect on individuals.  In this interview series with Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, a physician and advocate, I ask questions about trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder that some Salvadorans may find useful today.

MIKE: Dr. Hope, let’s say that in 1981, I was walking to go cut sugarcane, and I encountered a pile of dead bodies on the road. At the time I was horrified, but it’s not really something I often think about today.  Could something like that still bother me in 2017?

DR. HOPE: Yes. Even years after living through a traumatic event people can experience the emotional, physical, and psychological effects of trauma. Sometimes these experiences can manifest as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

MIKE: What exactly is posttraumatic stress disorder?

DR. HOPE: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening or violent event, such as war, serious physical injury, sexual violence, a natural disaster, or a car accident.

People affected by PTSD can experience many different symptoms. For example, they may experience the following indicators of PTSD:

  • Intrusive symptoms like bad memories, nightmares, or flashbacks. People can also experience intense, prolonged physical or psychological distress after being exposed to situations that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, people, or situations that are reminders of the trauma.
  • Negative changes in mood or thoughts, including fear, shame, guilt, or poor self-esteem. People may also have difficulty recalling key details of what happened to them. They may also feel detached from other people or have difficulty experiencing pleasure.
  • Irritability, aggressive or reckless behavior, problems concentrating, or difficulty sleeping.

People experience these symptoms chronically, for at least a month, and the symptoms make it difficult to function at work, school, or in social settings.

It’s important to remember that PTSD can affect children, too. Anyone can be affected by PTSD.

MIKE: Could my physical health be affected if I have posttraumatic stress disorder?

DR. HOPE: Yes. People with PTSD may be more susceptible to high blood pressure or heart disease. They may also be more susceptible to other mental health disorders like depression or anxiety.

Some people with PTSD also experience headaches, stomach aches, unexplained chronic pain, or other physical symptoms.

MIKE: What is the relationship between alcohol use and posttraumatic stress disorder?

DR. HOPE: Some people with PTSD may try to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. PTSD can increase the risk for a drinking problem. But drinking alcohol can worsen symptoms of PTSD like sleep disturbances, nightmares, or difficulty coping with stress. It can also increase the risk for depression, panic disorders, and medical illnesses like liver disease, diabetes, and heart disease.

MIKE: OK, so we’ve talked about things that happened a long time ago. Let’s say that just last year, I migrated by land through Mexico into the United States.  During that time, I was almost kidnapped and one of my fellow travelers died of a snake bite in the desert.  Could that affect me?

DR. HOPE: Yes. Witnessing or experiencing any serious threat to life can be a trigger for PTSD.

MIKE: What should I do if I think I have symptoms of PTSD?

DR. HOPE: I suggest talking with your primary care provider or a counselor, social worker, or psychologist. They can help determine if you have PTSD or symptoms of PTSD. There are many different forms of treatment available and the sooner you get appropriate care, the better.

MIKE: What if I do not have documents, and I’m living in the US, and I think that I have PTSD? What should I do?

DR. HOPE: There are many places that provide clinical services, including mental health care, for people who do not have documents. In some places, insurance is available for people without documents. Even without insurance, some clinics provide free health care or discounted health care.

You can follow Dr. Hope on Facebook or her blog.

Click here for a Spanish language version of this interview.

The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.  Please consult a health care provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.