PTSD: Definition, Psychology, Symptoms and Treatment Options
Content warning: Please be advised, this article discusses complex conditions and situations including suicide, domestic violence, and rape. Please read at your own discretion. The information found in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice.
At some point or another, most people go through stressful or nerve-wracking situations that may leave them feeling anxious or nervous for a period of time. In most cases, people are able to move on from the situation, taking with them only a handful of bad memories and a lesson learned for the future.
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 eventually go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. PTSD symptoms in women are different compared to symptoms in men, so it's important to seek help from a therapist to learn more about the condition.
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 8 million adults have been affected by and/or diagnosed with PTSD. Decades ago, PTSD was commonly referred to as “shell shock” because it was thought to only affect war veterans. However, in recent years, doctors began to realize that PTSD is a condition that affects more than just war veterans. PTSD can develop in men and women, and it can develop at 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 an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
Causes Of PTSD
There is no known medical cause of PTSD, but 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 there is a family history of mental illness, their chances of developing PTSD after trauma are higher than someone with no history at all.
PTSD is a disorder which 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 to be 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 mother, the partner, or both)
- Being the survivor of domestic abuse (physical or emotional) or living through a bad marriage
- Spending a prolonged period of time in a job where they frequently witness or are exposed to violent or traumatic images and events (e.g., police officer, homicide detective, soldier)
- 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 though the traumatic event did not happen to them but to 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 that any symptoms of PTSD should not be taken seriously.
The more severe the trauma, the higher the chances of developing PTSD. A lack of a proper support system, whether it's from family, friends or a therapist, can also increase the risk of PTSD. If PTSD is already present, a lack of support system can make the symptoms worse.
Often, the best thing to do after going through a traumatic event is to take preventative action by seeking help right away before any symptoms crop up. Even if you're feeling completely fine and think you are past the trauma, it’s 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. There is really no set timeline for when PTSD might develop, which is why it takes many people by surprise.
Symptoms Of PTSD
PTSD is a mental disorder affecting the way 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 else may be developing it, here are some of the signs and symptoms to watch out for:
- Feeling sad and/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 dealing with the trauma
- Having flashbacks to the traumatic event and feeling like it was taking place again, which can result in a physical reaction (e.g., if a sexual assault survivor is living with PTSD, something as simple as physical contact can bring them back to the event and cause a 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
- Having a hard time focusing on things or thinking clearly
- Having panic attacks or other physical symptoms, like sweating or trouble breathing
PTSD symptoms can vary between men and women, since biologically the two sexes often handle things differently. The symptoms of PTSD in men are more likely to lead to aggression, irritability, and anger, whereas a woman's symptoms may involve more emotional reactions, leading to sadness or nervousness. Women may also exhibit more anxiety than men and isolate themselves from the people around them.
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 period of time where they feel preoccupied by 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.
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. Keep in mind this checklist should not be used as a medical diagnosis, and 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 (this is where the checklist can help) and then finding the 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 which could be impacting your behavior or emotions, such as a tumor. Once certain medical conditions have been ruled out, they will likely refer you to a medical professional specializing in mental health conditions. This provider will probably do a psychological evaluation and discuss your life, family history, and symptoms with you. Based on the information they accumulate, 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.
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 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 doctors may also use exposure therapy as a way to help you deal with and come face to face with what happened to you. Many treatment plans will strongly encourage the inclusion of 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. It also provides them with an outlet to share their own pain, struggles, and frustrations and helps them cope with the reality and challenges of the disorder.
Group therapy and support groups help you to feel less alone because they allow you to share your experiences with people who understand what you’re going through.
Antidepressants are often prescribed to treat PTSD. These are usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which help to control and manage symptoms of the disorder. It typically takes a few weeks to start seeing results with medication, and there may also be a period of trial and error as the doctor finds the right combination and dosage for you. Medication is often used in conjunction with therapy.
The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers regarding prescription medication.
In order for treatment to be effective and successful in the long run, full participation and involvement is necessary. If you are simultaneously going through other issues such as anxiety, depression or addiction, it’s important to tell your doctor so they can adjust your treatment plan accordingly.
It’s true that most people go through periods of ups and downs in their life. Even so, it’s important to get help after experiencing a traumatic event. Left untreated, your trauma may worsen and can lead to PTSD.
PTSD is 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 life. And in some cases, it can lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions. It can also have a negative impact on the individual’s families and friends.
If you or a loved one is dealing 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.
PTSD is treatable, so if you are going through a rough time or experiencing some symptoms of PTSD, it’s a good idea to get help. Managing your PTSD can help you get your life back, and it can help your loved ones, too. Don't wait for your symptoms to worsen before seeking treatment. If you're unsure of where to turn at this very moment, help from licensed professionals can always be found online with BetterHelp. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that connects individuals seeking help with the support they need. Signing up is easy—just fill out a questionnaire, and you’ll be matched with a licensed, experienced therapist. Starting talk therapy online can be a stepping stone on your path to recovery.