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Understanding PTSD

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. Examples of this include events such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.

For some people, PTSD symptoms may start later on, or they may come and go over time. If it’s been loner than a few months and you’re still having symptoms, you may have PTSD.

Who develops PTSD?

Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. A number of factors can increase the chance that someone will have PTSD, many of which are not under that person’s control. For example, having a very intense or long-lasting traumatic event or getting injured during the event can make it more likely that a person will develop PTSD. PTSD is also more common after certain types of trauma, like combat and sexual assault.

Personal factors, like previous trauma exposure, age and gender, can affect whether or not a person will develop PTSD. What happens after the traumatic event is also important. Stress can make PTSD more likely, while social support can make it less likely.

PTSD symptoms

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 upset, or get in the way of your work or home life, you might have PTSD.

There are 4 types of PTSD symptoms, but each person experiences symptoms in their own way. They are:

  • Reliving the event (re-experiencing). Memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. For example:

    • You may have nightmares.

    • You may feel like you are going through the event again. This is called a flashback.

    • You may see, hear, or smell something that causes you to relive the event. This is called a trigger. News reports seeing an accident, or hearing a car backfire are examples of triggers.

  • 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. For example:

    • You may avoid crowds, because they feel dangerous.

    • You may avoid driving if you were in a car accident or your military convoy was bombed.

    • If you were in an earthquake, you may avoid watching movies about earthquakes.

    • You may keep very busy or avoid seeking help because it keeps you from having to think or talk about the event.

  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings. The way you think about yourself and others may change because of the trauma. This symptom type has many aspects, including the following:

    • You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships.

    • You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them.

    • You may think the world is completely dangerous, and no one can be trusted.

    • It may be hard for you to feel happy, or other positive emotions.

    • You might feel guilt or shame about the event itself. For example, you may feel you should have done more to keep it from happening.

  • Feeling keyed up (hyperarousal). You may be jittery, or always on alert and on the lookout for danger. You might suddenly become angry or irritable. For example:

    • You may have a hard time sleeping.

    • You may have trouble concentrating.

    • You may be started by a loud noise or surprise.

    • You might want to have your back to a wall in a restaurant or waiting room.

    • You may act in unhealthy ways, like smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, or driving recklessly.

Kids may have the symptoms described above or other symptoms depending on how old they are. As they get older their symptoms are more like those of adults. Here are some examples of PTSD symptoms in children:

  • Kids younger than age 6 may get upset if their parents are not close by, have trouble sleeping, or act out the trauma through play.

  • Kids ages 7 to 11 may also 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.

  • Kids ages 12 to 18 have symptoms more similar to adults: depression, anxiety, withdrawal or reckless behavior, like substance abuse or running away.

Living with PTSD

After a traumatic event it’s normal to think, act, and feel differently than usual. But most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months. Talk with your healthcare provider or mental healthcare provider (like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker) if you have symptoms that:

  • Last longer than a few months

  • Are very upsetting

  • Disrupt your daily life

Getting better means different things for different people. There are many different treatment options for PTSD. For many people, these treatments get rid of symptoms altogether. Others find they have fewer symptoms or feel their symptoms are less intense. Your symptoms don’t have to get in the way of your everyday activities, work or school, or relationships.

Treatment for PTSD

There are 2 main types of treatment, talk therapy ( also called counseling or psychotherapy) and medicine. Sometimes people do both talk therapy and take medicine.

  • Trauma-focused talk therapy involves meeting with a therapist. The focus is on the memory of the traumatic event or its meaning. This is the most effective type of treatment for PTSD. There are different types of trauma-focused talk therapy, such as: Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Prolonged Exposure (PE), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

  • Medicines can be effective too. Some types of medicines which are used for depression, also work for PTSD.

No one treatment is right for everyone. You can discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider and figure out which ones are best for you based on the benefits, risks, and side effects of each treatment. Treatment can help you improve your symptoms, relationships, and quality of life.

For more information

AboutFace PTSD website

PTSD Treatment Decision Aid 

Treatment for PTSD health sheet

Do You Have Thoughts About Suicide?

If you or a loved one has thoughts about death or suicide, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and press 1, or use other emergency services. Or you can chat with a trained counselor online at

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 2/2/2018
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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