What is PTSD?

Most of us are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through a combination of movies and stories where it’s talked about and sometimes shown in dramatic circumstances. It’s common to connect the condition to soldiers returning from war after having served directly in harrowing conditions, but PTSD can truly strike anyone who has suffered from a traumatic event. In fact, 15 million Americans will suffer with PTSD at some point in any given year.

You may not even know that you’ve developed PTSD until you connect the dots and speak with a licensed professional for a full diagnosis. PTSD can be a sneaky, debilitating, emotional weight that requires treatment before you can reclaim your life. In this article, we’re going to discuss the important facts about post-traumatic stress disorder like how to identify if you may have it.

What is PTSD, and What Causes It?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological condition that has had many names over the years. In World War I, it was called “shell shock,” while it was called “war neuroses” in World War II. While we have long known about a condition like PTSD existing in those that faced traumatic combat situations, it wasn’t until 1980, when assessment techniques were developed and later expanded to other types of traumatic events, that we really got a handle on post-traumatic stress disorder’s effects. What was found is that PTSD can become a chronic psychological condition that can persist for decades and longer without treatment.

What is important is your perception of the trauma.

PTSD can be caused by a traumatic event that you experience, witness, or learn about. The event doesn’t have to happen directly to you, though this can make it more likely to occur. It may also be caused by a single event, a repeated occurrence, or multiple traumatic events that add up. It’s important to note that a traumatic event may not always cause PTSD and that what some may not consider traumatic may still cause PTSD in someone else. What is important is your perception of the trauma. You also may not develop PTSD immediately after the traumatic event, with some cases emerging months or even years after.

What are the Signs of PTSD?

The signs of post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest in a person differently, but the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has a set of conditions that must be fulfilled to receive a PTSD diagnosis. The language used in the DSM-5 — the current version of the manual — is meant for doctors and professional practitioners, so the language can be a little complex at points. You may need to go into the finer points if you are in the process of being diagnosed, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll try to give you broad strokes so you can get a sense for if you should speak to a professional.

Experienced a Traumatic Event

The first condition is that you have had exposure to a traumatic event, either directly, witnessing, or learning about an event, or experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to details or aftereffects of traumatic events (like a first responder seeing a brutal crime scene).

Intrusion Symptoms

Next is the presence of one or more intrusion symptoms associated with the trauma. This may include reliving the events or flashbacks, distressing dreams about the events, or distress at exposure to cues that symbolize or represent the trauma (sometimes called triggers).

Avoidance Behaviors

The next category is called avoidance behaviors and refers to actions you may take to avoid memories, thoughts, reminders, activities, or locations that are associated with the traumatic event or may act as triggers.

Changes to Mood or Cognitive Abilities

Furthermore, you may display two or more negative mood or cognition changes associated with the trauma. For example, dissociative amnesia (or not being able to remember important aspects of the event), persistent and exaggerated beliefs about yourself or others, persistent negative emotions or moods (depression, anger, fear, anxiety), or loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed are all signs that should be watched.

Negative Reactive or Arousal Behaviors

Finally, a marked change in arousal or reactive behaviors with two or more of the following symptoms may point to a PTSD diagnosis. You may notice hypervigilance, irritability or angry outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, trouble concentrating, or insomnia or sleep disturbances.

If you or someone you love fits these conditions and the symptoms have been present for more than a month, there is significant distress present or impairment to everyday life as a result of the symptoms, and they can’t be attributed to a medication or substance, like alcohol or recreational drugs, PTSD is a possibility. You should speak to a licensed professional right away so that you can begin receiving treatment.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder is the aftershock of the earthquake that a traumatic event can become in your life. As with actual earthquakes, sometimes the aftershock can do more damage than the initial earthquake itself. By piercing your life regularly, inhibiting your ability to enjoy the things you used to or simply making you sadder or more anxious, untreated PTSD can make it extremely difficult to overcome trauma that you have suffered. Remember, you’re not alone — almost everyone has experienced trauma, so you don’t have to struggle through it on your own. If you’re having a hard time overcoming a traumatic event, even if you don’t think the actual event is overtly traumatic, seek out help so you can reclaim your life and live it to the fullest!

Further Reading

National Institute of Mental Health — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Rethink Mental Illness — What are the signs and symptoms of PTSD