About Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can occur after a traumatic event, such as a threat to life, serious injury, or sexual violence. Some people who experience these types of events may develop PTSD. Sometimes, PTSD can occur in people who hear about trauma that occurs to a close family member or friend. PTSD can happen to anyone at any age.

What increases the risk?
This condition is more likely to occur in:

  • Military servicemen and servicewomen.
  • People who have been the victims of, or witness to, a traumatic event, such as:
    • Trouble swallowing.
    • Domestic violence.
    • Childhood physical or sexual abuse.
    • Rape.
    • Natural disasters.
    • Accidents involving serious injury.

What are the signs or symptoms?
Symptoms of PTSD can be grouped into several categories: intrusive, avoidance, increased arousal, and negative moods and thoughts.

Intrusive Symptoms
This is when a person re-experiences the traumatic event through one or more of the following ways:

  • Distressing dreams.
  • Feelings of fear, horror, intense sadness, or anger in response to a reminder of the trauma.
  • Unwanted distressing memories while awake.
  • Physical reactions triggered by reminders of the trauma, such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, and shaking.
  • Having flashbacks, or feelings like you are going through the event again.

Avoidance Symptoms
This is when a person avoids thoughts, conversations, people, or activities that are reminders of the trauma. Symptoms may also include:

  • Decreased interest or participation in daily activities.
  • Loss of connection or avoidance of other people.

Increased Arousal Symptoms
This is when a person is more sensitive or reacts more easily to their environment. Symptoms may include:

  • Being easily startled.
  • Careless or self-destructive behavior.
  • Irritability.
  • Feeling on edge.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Verbal or physical outbursts of anger toward other people or objects.
  • Difficulty sleeping.

Negative Moods or Thoughts
These may include:

  • Belief that oneself or others are bad.
  • Regular feelings of fear, horror, anger, sadness, guilt, or shame.
  • Not being able to remember certain parts of the traumatic event.
  • Blaming themselves or others for the trauma.
  • Inability to experience positive emotions, such as happiness or love.

PTSD symptoms may start soon after a frightening event or months or years later. Symptoms last at least one month and tend to disrupt relationships, work, and daily activities.

How is this diagnosed?
PTSD is diagnosed through an assessment by a mental health professional. You will be asked questions about any traumatic events. You will also be asked about how these events have changed your thoughts, mood, behavior, and ability to function on a daily basis. You may also be asked if you use alcohol or drugs.

How is this treated?
Treatment for PTSD may include:

  • Medicines. Certain medicines can reduce some PTSD symptoms.
  • Counseling (cognitive behavioral therapy). Talk therapy with a mental health professional who is experienced in treating PTSD can help.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). This type of therapy occurs with a specialized therapist.

Many people with PTSD benefit from a combination of these treatments. If you have other mental health problems, such as depression, alcohol abuse, or drug addiction, your treatment plan will include treatment for these other conditions.

Follow these instructions at home:

Find a support group in your community. Often groups are available for military veterans, trauma victims, and family members or caregivers. Find ways to relax. This may include:

  • Breathing exercises.
  • Meditation.
  •  Yoga.
  • Listening to quiet music.
  • Exercise regularly. Try to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
  • Try to get 7–9 hours of sleep each night. To help with sleep:
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
  • Do not eat a heavy meal within one hour of bedtime.
  • Do not drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks before bed.Avoid screen time, such as television, computers, tablets, or cell phones before bed.
  • Do not drink alcohol or take illegal drugs.
  • Look into volunteer opportunities. This can help you feel more connected to your community.
  • Take steps to help yourself feel safer at home, such as by installing a security system.
  • Contact a local organization to find out if you are eligible for a service dog.
  • Keep daily contact with at least one trusted friend or family member.
  • If your PTSD is affecting your marriage or family, seek help from a family therapist.

General instructions

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider and counselor. This is important.
  • Make sure to let all of your health care providers know you have PTSD. This is especially important if you are having surgery or need to be admitted to the hospital.

Contact a health care provider if:
Your symptoms do not get better or get worse.

Get help right away if:
You have thoughts of wanting to harm yourself or others.

This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.

Chris Dickinson