Symptoms Of PTSD In Adults (Plus Treatment Options)

Updated April 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Over 70% of adults living in the United States have gone through some type of traumatic event, according to the National Council on Behavioral Health. Traumatic events often manifest in post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. PTSD is a mental health disorder that can cause deep feelings of fear, the tendency to be easily startled, and a history of trauma, whether occurring in daily life or due to a one-time circumstance like a natural disaster. PTSD images often stay with the individual, and treatment for this can be helpful. It's also important to understand the differences in PTSD symptoms in women and men, the challenges of delayed onset PTSD, and which treatment options work best. 

PTSD Doesn’t Have To Be Debilitating

PTSD Symptoms & Signs

The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults may occur immediately after the event, or they can emerge at some time later. Many people tend to connect posttraumatic stress disorder in adults with flashbacks after a traumatic event, but there can be more to PTSD than that. Certain situations may trigger your senses, and they can cause you to become stressed and hypervigilant. You may feel detached too. You could have constant negative thoughts about yourself or the trauma that occurred. It may be difficult to feel any positive emotions. Other mental disorders can also be concurrent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even further, PTSD causes physical symptoms or physical sensations in many people, not just mental health problems.

If you’re experiencing PTSD that comes with severe stress, problems with substance use, hypervigilance, flashbacks, angry outbursts, or other symptoms, you don’t have to continue feeling like you’re constantly on the edge. By recognizing all the symptoms and feelings related to PTSD and being open to trying different treatments, you stand a good chance of returning to a more normal life. Talking with a competent therapist to address PTSD DSM 5 criteria will help you learn more about your condition.

Do I Have A Stress Disorder Or PTSD?

PTSD falls into the category of stress disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD or needs treatment. Other types of traumatic stress can occur without evolving into PTSD. You can also have a different type of PTSD called Complex PTSD.

Acute Stress Disorder

Acute stress disorder, or ASD (not to be confused with autism spectrum disorder), is another type of traumatic stress disorder that occurs in some people after a traumatic event. If symptoms of traumatic stress appear for less than a month, you may have an acute stress disorder and not PTSD. Either way, it’s important to take your symptoms seriously, especially if you’re experiencing intrusive memories.

According to an article written by John W. Barnhill MD, symptoms of ASD are unpleasant, intense, and may cause you to experience difficulty functioning normally. Most often, symptoms begin shortly after experiencing a traumatic event. If symptoms persist beyond a month, you may get a diagnosis of PTSD. 

The chances of treatment and recovery from Acute Stress Disorder are optimistic once you’ve been removed from the situation that caused your traumatic stress. It is easier for victims of traumatic stress to recover when they have the benefit of appropriate support. 

Many people find that it reduces their traumatic stress and intrusive memories when they have opportunities to talk about it over and over in a safe treatment environment. It’s helpful to surround yourself with empathetic friends or loved ones. If you don’t have the opportunity to discuss your traumatic experience with close friends or family, your doctors or other healthcare professionals make good sounding boards. Complex PTSD symptoms and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can include trouble sleeping and other physical signs like stomach aches.

What Types Of Traumatic Events Lead To PTSD?

For many people living with PTSD, the stress disorder was caused by a first-hand, direct experience such as a serious injury, violence, or the threat of death. It doesn’t always happen that way, though. Exposure to a traumatic event can occur indirectly, as well. For example, if you have experienced someone dying or you’ve witnessed a tragic event that happened to someone else, those are indirect exposures to traumatic events that can just as seriously affect your mental health. 

Symptoms Of PTSD In Adults

There are more than a dozen symptoms of PTSD in adults, and they fall into three main types of traumatic stress symptoms:

  1. Having flashbacks, nightmares, or mentally re-experiencing the traumatic event up to a few weeks after the event

  2. Feeling numb, avoiding things that remind you of the traumatic event, and feeling disassociated

  3. Having increased mental and emotional arousal may cause you to have difficulty sleeping or concentrating. You may feel jumpy, irritated, or angry. Angry outbursts are sometimes common in PTSD.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), your doctor may diagnose you with PTSD if your traumatic stress symptoms affect you for more than a month after experiencing a traumatic event. Symptoms of traumatic stress may not affect you until months or years down the line. The same traumatic stress symptoms that apply to PTSD in adults also apply to adolescents and children older than six years of age and also respond to treatment.

For a diagnosis of PTSD, the causes of traumatic stress include:

  • Directly experiencing a traumatic event

  • Witnessing a traumatic event in person

  • Learning that a traumatic event occurred to a close family or close friend where there was an actual threat of death that was violent or accidental

  • Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to the adverse accounts of a traumatic event

For example, stress-related symptoms that affect mental health are common in first responders such as police officers, firefighters, and medical personnel. These professionals deal with life and death situations regularly. ADAA notes that mental health disorders related to stress disorders don’t apply to those who experience traumatic stress as a result of exposure to electronic media, television, movies, or photos unless the stress disorder is related to their jobs.

To be classified as PTSD, one or more of the following symptoms of traumatic stress must be present in the first category of a stress disorder:

  • Spontaneously having recurrent, involuntary memories that cause traumatic stress that is intrusive and distressing (ADAA adds that children express traumatic stress by acting out the traumatic event repeatedly during play, which shows its significant impact.)

  • Having dreams that cause traumatic stress and stir emotions related to the event (Children may experience traumatic stress after having scary dreams they don’t understand.)

  • Having flashbacks or other traumatic stress reactions where you feel the traumatic event is reoccurring

  • Having intense distress for a prolonged period that affects your mental health 

  • Having physiological responses or mental arousal symptoms when something triggers a memory of the traumatic event

To be classified as PTSD, one or more of the following PTSD symptoms of traumatic stress must be present from the second category of a stress disorder:

PTSD Doesn’t Have To Be Debilitating

  • Not being able to remember significant details from the traumatic event (This may be due to having a head injury or due to being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.)

  • Having persistent, negative, and exaggerated thoughts about yourself, others, or the world that prevents you from feeling happiness

  • Continually blaming yourself or someone else about why the traumatic event occurred

  • Having feelings of fear, horror, anger, shame, or guilt that persistently affect your mental health

  • Not feeling up to participating in activities that you formerly enjoyed

  • Having feelings that you are detached from others, even friends and family

To be diagnosed with PTSD, your mental health must also be affected by at least two symptoms from the third category of symptoms of a stress disorder, which includes:

  • Constantly feeling irritable or showing aggressive behavior

  • Acting out in a reckless or self-destructive manner

  • Feeling hypervigilant and on edge

  • Having an exaggerated startle response

  • Having problems concentrating

  • Not being able to fall asleep or experiencing restlessness in sleep

The ADAA adds that stress disorders can also be attributed to having impaired social or occupational function that isn’t related to the direct effects of prescribed medications, alcohol, or drugs. Stress disorders can also be caused by other types of medical conditions and risk factors such as traumatic brain injury. 

Treatment For PTSD In Adults

There is no cure for PTSD symptoms in women and men. Still, many treatments are available for PTSD and other types of stress disorders that have been proven to relieve symptoms. Most of the effective treatments for PTSD and other stress disorders fall into the category of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

CBT Treatment

CBT treatment consists of exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring. Your therapist may include some combination of the following treatments for PTSD:

  • Cognitive processing therapy

  • EMDR

  • Prolonged exposure therapy

  • Stress inoculation training

  • Internal Family Systems (IFS therapy)

  • Support groups

  • Family therapy

  • Sexual assault therapy

  • Spiritual or faith-based therapy

  • Attachment-based therapy

Some people who live with PTSD also find that present-centered therapy and support groups are effective treatment options in reducing symptoms of stress disorders.


A traumatic event can happen to anyone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD can develop in many different people for various reasons. The symptoms of PTSD and other stress or anxiety disorders can negatively impact your life, work, and relationships. Treatment and emotional support are available from mental health professionals.

The symptoms of PTSD can sometimes make seeking out therapy difficult, especially in person. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed about your disorder, for example. Or you might fear experiencing PTSD symptoms in public. In these cases, online therapy might be a more feasible option. With internet-based counseling, you don’t have to leave home to talk to a mental health professional. This type of treatment may also be more convenient since appointment times are available day and night. 

If you feel like you need support, the staff at BetterHelp can match you to a licensed professional. Through talk therapy, you can get on the road to recovery. Find help today.

You Don't Have To Face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Alone.

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