What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (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, hear about, or that happens to you. During a traumatic 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. Most people have some stress-related reactions after a traumatic event; but, not everyone gets PTSD. 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 daily activities.
How does PTSD develop?
Most people who go through a trauma have some symptoms at the beginning. Only some will develop PTSD over time. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't.
Whether or not you 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 injured
- 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
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not appear 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 might have PTSD.
There are four types of PTSD symptoms:
- Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms):
You may have bad memories or nightmares. You even may feel like you're going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
- Avoiding situations that remind you of the event:
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.
- Feeling numb:
You may find it hard to express your feelings. Or, you may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. This is another way to avoid memories.
- Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal):
You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. This is known as hyperarousal.
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
- Depression or anxiety
- Employment problems
- Relationships problems including divorce
- Physical symptoms or chronic pain
Can children have PTSD?
Children can have PTSD too. They may have 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:
- Children age birth to 5 may get upset if their parents are not close by, have trouble sleeping, or suddenly have trouble with toilet training or going to the bathroom.
- Children age 6 to 11 may act out the trauma through play, drawings, or stories. Some have nightmares or become more irritable or aggressive. They may also want to avoid school or have trouble with schoolwork or friends.
- Children age 12 to 18 have symptoms more similar to adults: depression, anxiety, withdrawal, or reckless behavior like substance abuse or running away.
Will I get better?
"Getting better" means different things for different people, and not everyone who gets treatment will be "cured." Even if you continue to have symptoms, however, treatment can help you cope. Your symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships.
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 two main types of treatment, psychotherapy (sometimes called counseling) and medication. Sometimes people combine psychotherapy and medication.
Psychotherapy for PTSD:
Psychotherapy, or counseling, involves meeting with a therapist. There are different types of psychotherapy:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for PTSD. There are different types of CBT. such as cognitive therapy and exposure therapy.
- One type is Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) where you learn skills to understand how trauma changed your thoughts and feelings.
- Another type is Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy where you talk about your trauma repeatedly until memories are no longer upsetting. You also go to places that are safe, but that you have been staying away from because they are related to the trauma.
- A similar kind of therapy is called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy involves focusing on sounds or hand movements while you talk about the trauma.
Medications 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. Another medication called Prazosin has been found to be helpful in decreasing nightmares related to the trauma.
IMPORTANT: Benzodiazepines and atypical antipsychotics should generally be avoided for PTSD treatment because they do not treat the core PTSD symptoms.
National Center for PTSD
Date Created: January 1, 2007
Reviewed/Updated Date: May 29, 2012
Reviewed by athealth on February 7, 2014.