Post traumatic stress

About the Condition

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Many people who go through traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping for a while, but they don’t have PTSD — with time and good self-care, they usually get better. But if the symptoms get worse or last for months or even years and interfere with your functioning, you may have PTSD.

Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within three months of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships.

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, or changes in emotional reactions.

Intrusive memories

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event

Avoidance

Symptoms of avoidance may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event

You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.

As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:

  • Inherited mental health risks, such as an increased risk of anxiety and depression
  • Life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through since early childhood
  • Inherited aspects of your personality — often called your temperament
  • The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress

People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, such as:

  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, including childhood abuse or neglect
  • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
  • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
  • Having biological (blood) relatives with mental health problems, including PTSD or depression

Questions and Answers

PTSD

What are the Risk and Resilience factors for PTSD?

Some factors that increase risk for PTSD include:

Living through dangerous events and traumas
Getting hurt
Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
Childhood trauma
Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
Having little or no social support after the event
Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home
Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse

Some resilience factors that may reduce the risk of PTSD include:

Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family
Finding a support group after a traumatic event
Learning to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
Having a positive coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear
Researchers are studying the importance of these and other risk and resilience factors, including genetics and neurobiology. With more research, someday it may be possible to predict who is likely to develop PTSD and to prevent it.