What is PTSD?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can
occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event
is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you.
During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are
in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over
what is happening.
Anyone who has gone through a life-threatening event can develop PTSD. These events can include:
- Combat or military exposure
- Child sexual or physical abuse
- Terrorist attacks
- Sexual or physical assault
- Serious accidents, such as a car wreck.
- Natural disasters, such as a fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake.
After the event, you may feel scared, confused, or angry. If these
feelings don't go away or they get worse, you may have PTSD. These
symptoms may disrupt your life, making it hard to continue with your
How does PTSD develop?
All people with PTSD have lived through a traumatic event that caused
them to fear for their lives, see horrible things, and feel helpless.
Strong emotions caused by the event create changes in the brain that may
result in PTSD.
Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at
the beginning. Yet only some will develop PTSD. It isn't clear why some
people develop PTSD and others don't. How likely you are to get PTSD
depends on many things:
- How intense the trauma was or how long it lasted
- If you lost someone you were close to or were hurt
- How close you were to the event
- How strong your reaction was
- How much you felt in control of events
- How much help and support you got after the event
Many people who develop PTSD get better at some time. But about 1
out of 3 people with PTSD may continue to have some symptoms. Even if
you continue to have symptoms, treatment can help you cope. Your
symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work,
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
Symptoms of PTSD can be terrifying. They may disrupt your life and
make it hard to continue with your daily activities. It may be hard
just to get through the day.
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they
may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go
over many years. If the symptoms last longer than 4 weeks, cause you
great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you probably
There are four types of PTSD symptoms:
- Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms):
Bad memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You
may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place.
You may have nightmares. You even may feel like you're going through
the event again. This is called a flashback. Sometimes there is a
trigger -- a sound or sight that causes you to relive the event.
Triggers might include:
Avoiding situations that remind you of the event:
- Hearing a car backfire, which can bring back memories of gunfire and war for a combat Veteran.
- Seeing a car accident, which can remind a crash survivor of his or her own accident.
- Seeing a news report of a sexual assault, which may bring back memories of assault for a woman who was raped.
You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of
the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the
event. For example:
- A person who was in an earthquake may avoid watching television shows or movies in which there are earthquakes.
- A person who was robbed at gunpoint while ordering at a hamburger drive-in may avoid fast-food restaurants.
- Some people may keep very busy or avoid seeking help. This keeps them from having to think or talk about the event.
You may find it hard to express your feelings. This is another way to avoid memories.
- You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships.
- You may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy.
- You may not be able to remember parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.
Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal):
You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. This is known as hyperarousal. It can cause you to:
- Suddenly become angry or irritable
- Have a hard time sleeping.
- Have trouble concentrating.
- Fear for your safety and always feel on guard.
- Be very startled when something surprises you.
What are other common problems?
People with PTSD may also have other problems. These include:
- Drinking or drug problems.
- Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair.
- Employment problems.
- Relationships problems including divorce and violence.
- Physical symptoms.
Can children have PTSD?
Children can have PTSD too. They may have the symptoms described
above or other symptoms depending on how old they are. As children get
older, their symptoms are more like those of adults. Here are some
examples of PTSD symptoms in children:
- Young children may become upset if their
parents are not close by, have trouble sleeping, or suddenly have
trouble with toilet training or going to the bathroom.
- Children who are in the first few years of elementary school (ages 6
to 9) may act out the trauma through play, drawings, or stories. They
may complain of physical problems or become more irritable or
aggressive. They also may develop fears and anxiety that don't seem to
be caused by the traumatic event.
What treatments are available?
When you have PTSD, dealing with the past can be hard. Instead of
telling others how you feel, you may keep your feelings bottled up. But treatment can help you get better.
There are good treatments available for PTSD. Cognitive behavioral
therapy (CBT)appears to be the most effective type of counseling for
PTSD. There are different types of cognitive behavioral therapies such
as cognitive therapy and exposure therapy. A similar kind of therapy
called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is also
used for PTSD. Medications can be effective too. A type of drug known
as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), which is also used
for depression, is effective for PTSD.