PTSD: Definition, Symptoms, And Treatment Options

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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At some point in life, most people go through a stressful or nerve-wracking situations that may leave them feeling anxious or nervous for a period of time. In most cases, people move on from the situation, taking with them only a handful of bad memories. In some cases, especially when the individual experienced a traumatic event of some kind, they have a hard time moving on from the event and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

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Trauma can take its toll
PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop after an individual experiences or observes a "shocking, scary, or dangerous event." 

In the United States, approximately 13 million adults have been affected by or diagnosed with PTSD. Decades ago, PTSD was commonly called "shell shock" because people believed it was only experienced by war veterans. However, in recent years, doctors began to realize that PTSD is a condition that affects other people as well. 

PTSD can develop in men and women of any age. In some people, it can take years for symptoms to first appear. Even though anyone can experience PTSD, women are usually at a higher risk for developing the disorder since, among other reasons, they are more likely to experience the types of trauma that most frequently lead to PTSD. 

Research has shown that people with PTSD can go on to develop additional mental health conditions. Additionally, it is not uncommon for someone with PTSD to have a substance use disorder.

Causes of PTSD

There is no known medical cause of PTSD. Researchers believe that biology, genetics, and social factors can influence whether one individual is more at risk of developing PTSD than another. For instance, if someone already lives with an anxiety disorder or depression or has a family history of mental illness, their chances of developing PTSD after trauma are higher than someone with no such history.

PTSD is a disorder that is generally caused by witnessing or living through trauma or abuse. What one person finds traumatic or stressful can be very different from what someone else considers traumatic. Therefore, there is a wide range of issues, events, and situations that can cause someone to develop PTSD. Some examples include but are not limited to:

  • Being the survivor of a kidnapping or hostage situation
  • Being the survivor of human trafficking
  • Being abused sexually or physically
  • Going through a traumatic labor and childbirth experience (This can be a traumatizing experience for the person who gave birth, the partner, or both.)
  • Being the survivor of domestic abuse (physical or emotional) or living through a bad marriage
  • Spending a prolonged period in a job where they frequently witness or are exposed to violent or traumatic images and events (e.g., police officer, homicide detective, soldier, etc.)
  • Being in a car accident
  • Witnessing the death of someone (a stranger or a loved one) through violence or as the result of an illness or distressing circumstance
  • Living through or witnessing war, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster

If you or someone you love is affected by domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for help and support.

In some cases, individuals can even develop what is referred to as secondary trauma. Secondary trauma means they experience symptoms of PTSD even after someone else experiences a traumatic event, usually someone they were supporting. Even though the trauma did not happen to the individual directly, that does not mean the effects are any less severe or legitimate.

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The more severe the trauma, the higher the chances of developing PTSD. A lack of a proper support system, whether from family, friends, or a therapist, can also increase the risk of PTSD. If PTSD is present, a lack of support can worsen the symptoms.

The best thing to do after experiencing a traumatic event may be to take preventative action by talking to a professional mental health counselor. Even if you're feeling completely fine and think you are past the trauma, it may be a good idea to be proactive. After all, symptoms don't always show up immediately after the trauma has occurred. Symptoms can appear as early as a few weeks or as late as a few years after the traumatic event. 

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is a mental disorder affecting how the brain processes and responds to certain situations. The initial symptoms are typically mental and emotional, but as the severity increases, the symptoms may become more physical.

If you think you may have developed PTSD or suspect someone you know may be developing it, here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Feeling sad or anxious
  • Lack of joy or interest in things that were previously enjoyed
  • Use of drugs or alcohol either to numb the pain or as a way of coping with the trauma
  • Having flashbacks of the traumatic event and feeling like it is taking place again, which can result in a physical reaction 
  • Nightmares and night terrors, which are similar to flashbacks but occur during sleep
  • Avoiding places, events, or situations that might bring back memories of what happened
  • Insomnia
  • Having a hard time focusing on things or thinking clearly
  • Having panic attacks or other physical symptoms like sweating or trouble breathing

Diagnosing PTSD

It can take time to recognize and diagnose PTSD, especially since so much time can pass between the trauma and the symptoms. Someone who goes through a traumatic experience will likely have some time when they feel preoccupied with what happened. They might experience fear and anxiety and may need some time to recover from the experience. However, for some people, those feelings persist or come back months and years later.

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Trauma can take its toll

If the symptoms mentioned above seem familiar to you, and you are wondering whether you might have PTSD, you may want to complete a PTSD checklist. PTSD checklists can be found online and usually take under five minutes to finish. Reviewing a PTSD checklist can help you pinpoint and understand your symptoms before you go to the doctor or, at the very least, give you an idea of what you might be going through. Remember this checklist should not be used as a medical diagnosis. Before beginning any kind of treatment for PTSD or any medical condition, you should see a doctor.

If you suspect you may have PTSD, the first step to getting help is acknowledging there may be an issue. Then, you can begin looking for an appropriate mental health professional to provide an accurate diagnosis and lay out a treatment plan. Making an appointment with your primary care physician is usually the best place to start.

The doctor will ask you to explain your symptoms and will likely conduct some medical tests, including a physical evaluation and blood tests, to rule out any illnesses that could be impacting your behavior or emotions. Once certain medical conditions have been ruled out, they will likely refer you to a medical professional specializing in mental health conditions. This provider may perform a psychological evaluation and discuss your life, family history, and symptoms with you. Based on the information they gather, a diagnosis may be made.

The criteria for diagnosing PTSD is outlined in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but usually, the symptoms have to be persistent and last for a month or longer.

Treating PTSD

Once a PTSD diagnosis has been made, you and your provider can map out a treatment plan customized to your specific needs. Typically, PTSD is treated with talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both.

Talk therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is particularly useful for PTSD. CBT encourages you to explore your emotions, thoughts, and feelings. It also encourages you to analyze your behaviors through simple exercises and activities and provides you with the tools you need to manage your symptoms and move past your trauma.

Some professionals may also use exposure therapy as a way to help you address what happened to you. Many treatment plans will strongly encourage including family and couples counseling as well as group therapy or support groups. Involving your family in your treatment helps them to better understand what you are going through. Group therapy and support groups may help you feel less alone because they allow you to discuss your experiences with people who understand what you're going through.

The symptoms of PTSD can sometimes present a barrier to treatment. You may not want to venture outside of the house for fear of having a flashback in public, for instance. With online therapy, you have conversations with your therapist from the comfort of your own home. You may also find that an internet-based setting provides a sense of ease that allows you to discuss your feelings in a way that is more comfortable. 

A growing body of evidence supports using online therapy to treat PTSD. A recent study showed that a variety of therapeutic approaches, including trial-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based health promotion, can be effective in treating PTSD symptoms when delivered in an internet-based setting. 

PTSD outcomes

It's true that most people go through periods of ups and downs in their life. Even so, getting help after experiencing a traumatic event is important. Left untreated, your trauma may worsen and can lead to PTSD.

PTSD can be a debilitating mental illness. It can greatly reduce the quality of life of those living with it and significantly impact their social, professional, and personal lives. And in some cases, it can lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, you don't have to manage them alone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Takeaway

PTSD is treatable, so if you are going through a rough time or experiencing some symptoms of PTSD, it may be time to seek help. Managing your PTSD can help you get your life back, and it can help your loved ones, too. Many people make the mistake of waiting for symptoms to worsen before seeking treatment. If you're unsure where to turn, help from licensed professionals can always be found online with BetterHelp.
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