What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Everything You Should Know About Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When people experience trauma, they may eventually develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From natural disasters to severe accidents, there are many causes of PTSD. If you develop this disorder, your symptoms may dissipate over time. There’s also a chance that you will need some form of treatment for it. In this guide, you’ll learn about PTSD and how it might affect you. 

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD is a somewhat common mental health disorder that people can develop following a traumatic event. Some of the life-threatening events that bring about trauma include a severe car accident, combat, and sexual assault. However, the event doesn’t need to be harmful to cause PTSD. If someone you know dies suddenly, you may develop this disorder. 

During a traumatic event, you will likely feel fear and similar emotions. Your body has a “fight-or-flight” response that results in faster breathing, a quicker heart rate, and an increase in alertness. Your blood pressure might also spike. Various hormones are released to protect your body. For many people, these symptoms remain in place for days or weeks following the traumatic event. Even if the symptoms go away on their own, they can return.

Primary Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is a more serious form of trauma that can cause someone to relive the event via flashbacks and nightmares effectively. If you suffer from PTSD, you might also experience guilt, isolation, and other negative feelings. Because of how many symptoms can accompany PTSD, they are usually separated into four categories, which include the following:

  • Avoidance
  • Intrusive memories
  • Negative changes to mood and thinking
  • Changes in emotional and physical reactions

Intrusive memories can occur in different ways. For example, you may have recurrent memories of the event that caused PTSD. You might also have frightening nightmares or dreams about this event. When you’re awake, these memories can occur as flashbacks that cause you to relive the moment. If anything reminds you of your trauma, you may have severe physical or emotional reactions in response.

If you avoid talking or thinking about your trauma, this is a sign of avoidance. The same is true if you’re avoiding people or places that serve as a clear reminder of the event. As for negative changes in mood and thinking, these symptoms can involve:

  • Having negative thoughts
  • Experiencing memory issues
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Being detached from friends
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Not maintaining close relationships

The types of changes in your emotional and physical reactions to be on the lookout for include the following:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Issues with sleeping
  • Being frightened or startled
  • Being on guard constantly
  • Aggressive behavior or irritability
  • Severe shame or guilt
  • Self-destructive behavior

When children develop PTSD, they may have terrifying dreams or reenact the traumatic event.

PTSD Causes

Any traumatic situation can lead to PTSD. The types of incidents that often cause this disorder include:

  • A dangerous childbirth experience
  • Serious vehicle accidents
  • Severe health problems
  • Violent assaults

While some people develop PTSD instantly after the traumatic event, there’s no definitive timeline for when it occurs. Some people experience PTSD months or years later.

Understanding Complex PTSD

This disorder can take the form of complex PTSD, which occurs among people who regularly go through traumatic events and situations. For example, someone who is severely abused over a lengthy amount of time may eventually develop this condition. The symptoms of complex PTSD are similar to the standard form of this disorder. If the trauma takes place during childhood, the symptoms that develop might be more serious.

The diagnosis process for complex PTSD is similar to that of the standard version. When individuals experience repeated traumatic stress, their brain’s structure and chemistry can be altered. Some of the changes within the brain can be permanent. These alterations mainly occur in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. 

The amygdala is the portion of your brain that’s responsible for processing fear and the types of emotions you experience during a traumatic event. The hippocampus is an area that regulates memory and learning. The prefrontal cortex is involved in many different executive functions, including everything from controlling social behavior to decision-making. The changes that invariably take place during PTSD can be more severe with the complex type.

Who Is at Risk of Developing PTSD?

Regardless of your age, you can develop PTSD. The main risk factors associated with this disorder include:

  • Going through long-term trauma
  • Having childhood trauma
  • Additional stressors following the event
  • History of mental illness
  • Lack of social support
  • Extreme fear or hopelessness

The stressors that may compound your trauma include everything from losing a job to developing a major injury. 

How PTSD Is Diagnosed

Your doctor can diagnose PTSD by performing a mental health screening or physical exam. PTSD can only be diagnosed if you experience the following symptoms for one month or longer:

  • An avoidance symptom
  • Two mood and cognition symptoms
  • A re-experiencing symptom
  • Two reactivity and arousal symptoms

PTSD Treatments

There are numerous treatments that people can receive if their PTSD symptoms haven’t gone away. Even if it takes months, these symptoms can disappear on their own. If your psychological distress is intense, you may receive a combination of medications and talk therapy as part of your treatment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

The most common category of talk therapy for PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Numerous types of therapy are used during CBT, including everything from cognitive processing therapy to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. 

The purpose of cognitive processing therapy is to treat PTSD and the comorbid symptoms that might accompany it. This therapy is designed to help clients change their negative beliefs and emotions. If you’re experiencing guilt or shame because of your trauma, cognitive processing therapy may help you confront these emotions. 

You may also receive trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, which is designed to be administered to adolescents and children. This therapy mixes trauma-specific interventions with the principles of CBT.

Prolonged exposure therapy is an intense treatment that tasks you with repeatedly imagining the details of your trauma. During this therapy, symptoms are triggered in a safe environment, which may help you face the distress and fear you’re experiencing because of your trauma. This therapy is designed to help you learn how to cope with the event and everything surrounding it. Prolonged exposure therapy has been effective at helping veterans who have fought on the battlefield deal with their PTSD.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy that often lasts around three months. During therapy, you’ll learn how to process your memories of the traumatic event, which should help you experience them differently in the future. Therapists may use their fingers or a light bar to guide your eyes. Repeated sessions of this therapy may cause positive changes to your feelings and thoughts regarding the traumatic event. 

People with PTSD can also choose to take part in group therapy. This form of therapy allows you to share your feelings and experiences in a nonjudgmental setting among people who are also recovering from PTSD. If one or more of your family members have had difficulties because of your PTSD, you may benefit from family therapy.

Medication and Other Solutions

Medication is sometimes provided to help control the symptoms of PTSD. If your symptoms are so severe that you’re finding it difficult to attend therapy, medication may be beneficial. PTSD symptoms are regularly treated with SNRIs and SSRIs, which are antidepressant medications. 

Other forms of medications can be administered to treat physical agitation and anxiety. People with PTSD can receive alternative therapies that include everything from yoga and acupuncture to animal-assisted therapy. 

Preventing PTSD

Not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will develop PTSD, which means that it’s possible to prevent the disorder. You may be able to keep PTSD at bay and recover after a traumatic event by telling your loved ones about it. Having contact with people who are important to you might make it easier to process the event. Some of the additional preventive techniques that are recommended for those who experience trauma include the following:

  • Helping others
  • Focusing on positive thoughts
  • Identifying as a survivor
  • Laughter and positive emotions

When to Seek Help for PTSD

Following a traumatic event, negative thoughts and emotions are normal. In many cases, these thoughts will start to go away after a few weeks. There are times, however, when they get worse or never seem to dissipate fully. If you have negative thoughts or emotions about the trauma for more than four weeks after the event, treatment may be necessary. Therapy might be required earlier if the symptoms are severe. 

There are many signs that therapy is needed. Even if some of your symptoms go away, you may have PTSD if you’re feeling distressed or anxious about the event. These issues can also cause problems with your relationships or work responsibilities. If you’ve had thoughts of harming yourself or others, obtain treatment. 

PTSD is a serious mental health disorder that usually requires long-term treatment. If you’re suffering from PTSD, consider contacting the National Depression Hotline at (866) 629-4564. We specialize in depression and PTSD. Our hotline offers free resources that anyone can take advantage of. For example, the person you speak with can direct you to support groups in your area. By seeking help for PTSD today, you can learn how to manage your trauma effectively.


Medically Reviewed By:

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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