Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complex mental health condition. The symptoms you have can vary depending on the kind of trauma you experienced.
What’s traumatic to you may not be for someone else. Not everyone will have the same reactions to a traumatic event, either.
In fact, you don’t even need to experience trauma firsthand to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You could start having symptoms after being exposed to someone else’s experience, or by being repeatedly exposed to details of a traumatizing event.
For example, police officers and first responders may repeatedly face cases of violence and abuse that could lead them to develop symptoms of PTSD.
Approximately 3.5% of U.S. adults have symptoms of PTSD every year, and 7 or 8 out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. With the right treatments and support, this condition can be managed and healing can occur.
To receive a diagnosis of PTSD, a teen or adult must have:
- direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event
- symptoms that are present for 1 month or longer
- significant distress or impairment in functioning, such as in relationships, work, and cognition
In addition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). has established these other criteria:
- one or more intrusion symptoms linked to the traumatic event
- constant avoidance of anything related to the traumatic event
- significant changes in mood or cognition associated with the traumatic event
- significant reactivity and alertness
These symptoms are only considered symptoms of PTSD if they significantly impact your life in terms of relationships, daily activities, and work.
People from different cultures may experience PTSD differently due to different definitions of what it means to be distressed.
If any of the symptoms are culturally sanctioned, they may not be considered for a diagnosis.
Intrusion symptoms are usually unwanted, persistent, and involuntary events.
You may experience one or more intrusion symptoms for at least 1 month after the traumatic event. This is required in order for a mental health professional to reach a PTSD diagnosis.
Intrusion symptoms include:
- distressing memories of the event
- dreams or nightmares about the event or emotions related to the event
- dissociative reactions that appear on a spectrum and can go from flashbacks to temporary loss of awareness of your surroundings
- intense distress when exposed to anything that resembles or symbolizes the event
Everyone can experience intrusive thoughts from time to time. But in PTSD, these thoughts cause intense discomfort and may remind you of the traumatic experience.
These thoughts can play out in memories, dreams, or flashbacks. Your thoughts may replay the event itself or represent major threats that were there.
They might also include brief visuals, sounds, or other sensory cues. In some cases, they may lead you to lose complete awareness of your surroundings.
Intrusive thoughts can be especially intense if you’re exposed to a trigger that makes you remember certain aspects of the traumatic event.
Not wanting to be exposed to anything that reminds you of the traumatic event is a natural reaction.
A mental health professional will explore the presence of one or both of these symptoms:
- a significant effort to avoid memories, thoughts, or emotions related to the event
- a significant effort to skip places, people, objects, situations, or conversations about what happened
To prevent psychological distress, you may want to avoid anything that’s linked directly or indirectly to the traumatic event.
For example, you may want to avoid the restaurant you visited hours before the traumatic event happened.
While it’s natural to want to escape from things that give you negative feelings, doing so can make daily life difficult. Not wanting to do things, and not being able to explain why, could strain aspects of your work and social life.
Changes in thoughts and moods
The way you feel about yourself and life may change after a traumatic event. The things you tell yourself about your world might also be different.
For a PTSD diagnosis, two or more of these symptoms need to be persistently present for a month or longer:
- not remembering important aspects of the event or not remembering the event at all (dissociative amnesia)
- intense negative beliefs about yourself, others, and the world in general
- exaggerated guilt and blaming yourself for what happened, mostly due to cognitive distortions
- intense negative emotions like horror and fear
- significantly decreased interest in socializing and participating in your usual activities
- feeling detached from other people
- an inability to enjoy things and have positive emotions
Having PTSD can make you feel more sensitive to negativity than before. It can also make you feel differently about yourself, others, or the world around you.
Depending on what happened, you may feel that you’re not good at making decisions or that you shouldn’t trust anyone ever again. You might also start to think if you did something differently, you could have prevented the trauma.
After a traumatic event, you may start noticing changes in how you react to certain situations. These symptoms may appear after what happened and then start to worsen.
Two or more symptoms from this list must be present:
- irritable behavior and unprovoked anger that may include physical or verbal outbursts
- behaviors that may put your safety in jeopardy
- being hyperalert or vigilant about your surroundings
- exaggerated reactions when you’re startled
- difficulty concentrating and focusing on any task
- changes in sleep patterns
Being able to detect threats is part of our survival instinct. If you have PTSD, though, you may notice that you’re more sensitive to potential threats than before. You might even see threats where before you did not.
Because we all experience different life events and react differently, PTSD doesn’t look the same for everyone.
For example, a person who has been in a serious car accident may have different symptoms of PTSD than someone who was injured in military combat.
Only trained health professionals can diagnose PTSD. They often do so according to criteria set by the DSM-5.
There are no lab tests to diagnose PTSD, but a doctor might still order these to rule out any physical illnesses that may be causing your symptoms.
A mental health professional will also want to spend some time talking about your concerns, medical and personal history, recent events, and symptoms.
They’ll want to know if you’ve directly experienced, seen, learned of, or been exposed to any traumatic events and if your symptoms followed this experience.
Because what’s traumatic for one person might not be for another, mental health professionals are trained to understand an individual’s unique experiences and feelings.
There are several treatment options available for PTSD. How fast your recovery is will depend on many factors, though. It could be between 3 and 24 months.
Health professionals usually use a combination of psychotherapy and medications to treat PTSD.
Types of psychotherapy that have been used to treat PTSD include:
- trauma-focused therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- prolonged exposure therapy (PE)
PTSD is a challenging and complex mental health condition to live with. Its symptoms can have a big impact on many aspects of your life and can usually last a month or longer.
Seeking professional support can help you manage these symptoms and improve all aspects of life affected by PTSD.
These resources might help you take the first step to getting support: