What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating mental disorder that can occur when a person has either directly experienced or simply witnessed an extremely traumatic, tragic, or terrifying event. People with PTSD usually have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.

Posttraumatic stress disorder, once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue, was first brought to public attention by war veterans after the Civil War in the United States (and internationally, after World War I), but it can result from any number of traumatic incidents other than wartime. These include kidnapping, serious accidents such as car or train wrecks, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, violent attacks such as a mugging, rape, or torture, or being held captive. The event that triggers it may be something that threatened the person’s life or the life of someone close to him or her. Or the event could be something witnessed, such as the destruction after a plane crash.

Most people with post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections — called flashbacks — during the day. The nightmares or recollections may come and go, and a person may be free of them for weeks at a time, and then experience them daily for no particular reason.

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or anxiety. Symptoms may be mild or severe — people may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. In severe cases, they may have trouble working or socializing. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was initiated by a person — such as a murder, as opposed to a flood. Not only soldiers get PTSD — anyone can who’s experienced or witnessed something traumatic.

Learn more: Myths about PTSD and Frequently Asked Questions

According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), posttraumatic stress disorder involves five main components: experiencing a traumatic event, re-experiencing the event, engaging in avoidance, suffering from these experiences, and an increase in arousal symptoms (e.g., feeling “on edge” all the time).

The primary symptoms of PTSD revolve around experiencing a traumatic event — either directly, by witnessing it, or indirectly (by knowing someone who experienced it). The traumatic event must either involve death, serious injury, and/or sexual violence.

PTSD also involves a constant re-experiencing of the event, or intrusive thoughts or memories of the event. Many people with this condition experience nightmares and flashbacks of the event. They will often be more emotional or upset upon the anniversary of the event, or being reminded of it.

People diagnosed with PTSD also engage in avoidance of any types of feelings, people, or situations associated with the traumatic event. They experience significant problems in their everyday life due to these symptoms, such as having problems with remembering things, having a distorted sense of blame, being stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, and feeling detached, disconnected or isolated from others.

Finally, a person with PTSD feels “on edge” much of the time, resulting in increased irritability, difficulty with sleep and concentration.

Learn more: The complete symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and complex PTSD symptoms

Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and other research institutions are still not certain what causes PTSD in some people who witness or experience a traumatic event, but not others. There may be a set of pre-existing risk factors that make a person more likely to be diagnosed. This factors include: experiencing a significant childhood loss, having poor self-esteem, experiencing previous trauma, experiencing previous abusive or traumatic situations that couldn’t be escaped or left, having previous mental health concerns or a history of mental illness in the family, or having a history of substance abuse.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, like most mental disorders, is best diagnosed by a specialist in mental health — such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or clinical social worker. While a family physician or general practitioner may offer a preliminary diagnosis, only a mental health professional offers the experience and skills necessary to diagnose this condition reliably.

Learn more: What Causes PTSD?

PTSD can be successfully treated, usually with a combination of psychotherapy and medications (for specific symptom relief, e.g., the common accompanying depressive feelings). People with PTSD should seek out treatment with a mental health professional — such as a psychologist or therapist — who has specific experience and background in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most treatment for PTSD is focused on a type of psychotherapy called trauma therapy. Trauma therapy is typically divided into three primary phases: safety, reviewing trauma memories, and helping the person integrate their new skills and knowledge into their everyday life. This can be done through a combination of exposure, relaxation techniques, EMDR, and body work (or somatic therapies).

Psychotherapy for PTSD is a complex process, but it isn’t necessarily time-consuming. Most people who receive therapy treatment do so once a week in individual, face-to-face sessions with a trained therapist who has experience treating trauma disorders. Some people also benefit from group therapy, or attending a regular support group. In most cases, the symptoms associated with this condition decrease over time with treatment. Depending upon the severity of the symptoms, many people will enjoy symptom relief within a few months and significant recovery within a year or two.

Learn more: Treatment of PTSD and Psychotherapy for PTSD

People who live with post-traumatic stress disorder may feel like they are fighting an everyday battle with their memories. It is not an easy condition to live with, as a person works through their treatment plan with mental health professionals.

Management of PTSD is best done with a comprehensive approach. Active treatment through psychotherapy and medication (if needed) can be supplemented by support groups and community support. If a person with PTSD has a partner, couples counseling may benefit the relationship, so their partner can better understand and learn how to cope with the symptoms associated with this condition.

Read personal stories: Two Stories of PTSD and PTSD: A Roller Coaster Life

Peer support is a great way to supplement your regular treatment with emotional support and information from others who also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Here are some additional support resources and ways to get help that may be beneficial for someone suffering from this condition.