What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition where you struggle to recover long after you experience or witness a deeply terrifying event.

About half of American adults experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. While many people have a difficult time coping in the wake of trauma, only a small portion go on to develop PTSD.

Here, learn more know about PTSD, including symptoms to look out for, what causes it, how to receive a diagnosis, treatment options, and more.

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may develop after a person has been through, seen, or been threatened with a traumatic event. The event can be a natural disaster, accident, combat, or sexual violation.

If you’re living with PTSD, you may find yourself having flashbacks and nightmares, avoiding situations that bring back unwanted memories, and struggling with feelings of anxiety, sadness, or anger. You might feel like it's harder to connect with others or keep up with school or work like you used to.

Know that PTSD is not a sign of weakness but a mental health condition that can be diagnosed and treated. With the help of a mental health professional, you or your loved one can begin to heal.

In the United States, an estimated 7 to 8% of people live with PTSD at some point in their lives, and people who are Latinx, Black, or American Indian are disproportionately affected by this condition.

Military man discusses PTDS symptoms with provider
SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

PTSD Symptoms

It’s common to experience distressing memories and feelings immediately after a traumatic event and from time to time as life goes on. However, for people living with PTSD, these intrusions last longer and disrupt your ability to function in day-to-day life. 

Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories and include:

Intrusive memories:

  • Repeated, unwanted memories of the traumatic event 
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Flashbacks as if you’re re-living the traumatic experience 
  • Severe distress when you’re reminded of the event 
  • Physical reactions to reminders of the event such as increased heart rate or sweating

Avoidance:

  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings of the traumatic event 
  • Staying away from reminders of trauma such as people, places, objects, or situations 
  • Resisting conversations about what happened or how you feel about it 

Increased arousal:

  • Being easily startled or fearful 
  • Struggling with irritability or angry outbursts 
  • Having trouble concentrating 
  • Having difficulty falling or staying asleep 
  • Behaving recklessly or self-destructively 
  • Being overly aware of your surroundings and potential threats to safety

Changes in thoughts and feelings:

  • Struggling to remember important parts of the traumatic event
  • Ongoing, distorted beliefs about yourself or others (such as “I’m a bad person” or “No one can be trusted”) 
  • Recurrent feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame, or hopelessness 
  • Loss of interest in once enjoyable activities 
  • Feeling detached from others or struggling to maintain close relationships 
  • Having difficulty experiencing positive feelings like joy or satisfaction

Often, people living with PTSD also have other physical and mental health problems including depression, substance abuse, and memory issues. Symptoms of PTSD can waver in intensity or become worse over time.

If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, reach out for help as soon as possible. You can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 to find support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database

Diagnosis

When these symptoms last over a month and cause significant distress, you can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Keep in mind that there’s no need to check off every box for a diagnosis of PTSD. You only need to experience a certain amount of symptoms from each category for an official diagnosis from a qualified mental health professional.

They'll go over your symptoms and history with you in order to determine what's going on and what you need in order to learn how to cope with symptoms of PTSD.

Causes

People may develop PTSD after experiencing or being exposed to an exceptionally stressful event that involves someone’s death or the threat of it, serious injury, or sexual violation. 

It’s unclear why exactly some people develop PTSD and others don’t. As is true for many mental health conditions, it’s likely that there is a slew of potential causes at the root of this condition including: 

  • Stressful life experiences, including how much trauma you’ve experienced and how severe it was
  • A family history of mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression
  • Your temperament or inherited personality traits
  • The way your brain regulates chemicals and hormones when you experience stress

Certain risk factors could also increase your chances of developing PTSD, such as:

  • Having experienced intense or prolonged trauma
  • Previous experiences of trauma such as childhood abuse
  • Having a job that increases your risk of exposure to trauma (such as military personnel or first responders)
  • Having other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression 
  • Having problems with substance abuse 
  • Not having a solid support system

Treatment

Fortunately, there are many research-backed treatments that can help people living with PTSD cope with symptoms and begin to recover. Effective treatments for PTSD include: 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy  


Cognitive behavioral therapy
(CBT) helps you learn how to recognize thought patterns that fuel negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic events happening again. With CBT, you can work on changing how you respond to thoughts, feelings, and situations related to trauma and work on adopting healthier behaviors. 

Exposure Therapy 

Exposure therapy repeatedly exposes you to memories and reminders of trauma in order to learn how to effectively cope with distressing symptoms of PTSD like anxiety and avoidance.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing 


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing
(EMDR) allows you to process traumatic memories in a new and more positive way with the help of guided eye movements. 

Medication 

Medication can help ease symptoms of PTSD and may improve your ability to participate in psychotherapy.

You may be prescribed antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications like Zoloft (sertraline) or Paxil (paroxetine), anti-anxiety medications (though generally only for a short period of time due to the potential for abuse), or other medications to help reduce sleep disturbances like nightmares. 

Complementary Therapies 

Additionally, there are a number of promising alternative therapies to consider adding to your treatment regimen such as animal-assisted therapy and trauma-sensitive yoga.

Coping

Learning to cope with symptoms of PTSD can be challenging, which is why it’s important to seek treatment and develop healthy coping skills along the way. 

Here are a few coping strategies to add to your skillset:

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you care about is living with PTSD, know that you’re not alone. Symptoms of PTSD can make you feel as if you’re spinning out of control or unable to function the way you used to anymore, but help is available. Talk to your doctor or a qualified mental health professional about how to be screened for PTSD and get the treatment you need so you can take back control of your life and move forward.

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Article Sources
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  2. National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How common is PTSD in adults? October 2019.

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