It’s natural to want to avoid situations that may bring up memories of experiences you would rather forget. Sometimes these feelings linger long after a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, motor vehicle accident, sexual assault, or act of violence.
They can creep into your daily life and disrupt your personal relationships and work. Symptoms such as avoidance, reactive triggers, and cognitive and mood disorders may be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In this article, we’ll discuss everything about PTSD: what it is, signs and symptoms, causes, complications, treatments, and when to see a medical provider.
What Is PTSD?
Nearly everyone who goes through trauma experiences a range of reactions after the event. Most people recover from these initial symptoms.
However, for some people, ongoing feelings of stress and fear may plague their daily lives even when they are not in danger. This is often diagnosed as PTSD.
While PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, anyone who has gone through abuse, trauma, terror, or emotional distress can develop anxiety triggers.
These triggers—along with a host of other psychological and behavioral changes—can emerge immediately after an emotionally scarring event or months or years later, and impact your daily life, relationships, and work.
Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms may take several years to emerge.
For medical providers to diagnose PTSD in adults, symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to impact a person’s relationships and/or work.
The following are symptoms that reflect PTSD in adults:
- At least one intrusion symptom
- At least one avoidance symptom
- At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
- At least two cognition and mood symptoms
Intrusion symptoms can stem from thoughts and feelings about the event.
Certain words, objects, or situations could manifest the following intrusion symptoms:
- Flashbacks: reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Frightening or upsetting memories of the event
After a traumatic event, a person may try to avoid certain situations that trigger reminders of what they have gone through.
Avoidance symptoms include:
- Avoiding activities that could result in the event recurring, such as not driving or getting in a car after a car accident
- Staying away from places, people, or objects that remind an individual of the event
- Refusing to think or talk about the event
Arousal and reactivity symptoms
Unlike certain triggers that remind a person of an event, arousal or reactivity symptoms are usually constant.
They can make it difficult for a person to do basic tasks such as eating, sleeping, and concentrating and often cause a person to be angry or stressed.
Arousal symptoms include:
- Angry outbursts
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Being easily startled by surroundings
- problems with concentration
- Difficulty sleeping or anxiety at night
Cognition and mood symptoms
After a traumatic event, cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen in an individual, causing them to feel alienated or detached from family and friends.
These symptoms are not due to personal injury, medical illness, substance use, or any other life circumstances.
Those with PTSD more often than not have depression and/or anxiety disorders.
Signs of PTSD pertaining to cognition and mood include:
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and blame
- Mood swings
- Suicidal thoughts
- Negative beliefs about the world and oneself
- Apathy toward activities that once brought joy
- Trouble remembering key details about the traumatic event
Symptoms in children and teens
PTSD symptoms in children and teens differ slightly and can be even more extreme than symptoms in adults.
Common symptoms in children younger than six years old can include:
- Acting out the traumatic event during playtime
- Drawing the traumatic event
- Forgetting how to talk or being unable to talk
- Being excessively clingy with a parent or other adult
For older children and teens, signs of PTSD can include the sudden development of disrespectful or disruptive behaviors.
They may indulge in vengeful behaviors or become self-destructive.
In some cases, older children and teens may harbor guilt about not preventing injury or death.
Causes of PTSD
While in most circumstances PTSD develops from a shocking or painful life experience, not everyone with PTSD has survived a dangerous event.
It is also possible to develop PTSD from the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one or by witnessing a loved one experience danger or harm.
Risk factors for PTSD
The following factors makes someone more likely to develop PTSD:
- Being assigned female at birth
- History of childhood trauma
- Living through dangerous events and traumas
- Having no to very little social support after the event
- Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse
- Injury or chronic pain
- Witnessing another person get hurt or seeing a dead body
- Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
- Dealing with extra stress after an event such as loss of a job, income, or home
- Losing a loved one
Complications of PTSD
Aside from how this disorder can dramatically disrupt your daily life, relationships, and work, if left untreated, PTSD can increase the risk of developing the following mental health problems:
- Depression and anxiety
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts and actions
Treatment for PTSD
There is no one simple cure for PTSD; what works for one person may not be the best form of treatment for another person, and it may take a little while to figure out what is best for you.
Most treatments involve medications and psychotherapy (“talk” therapy).
The American Psychological Association (APA) categorizes treatments as strongly recommended or conditionally recommended to help provide clinicians with the best interventions for their patients.
Strongly recommended treatments
The APA strongly recommends four interventions, all of which are variations of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a treatment that focuses on the relationships among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and changing the relationship with unhealthy belief patterns
Under the umbrella of CBT are cognitive processing therapy, cognitive therapy, and prolonged exposure.
Conditionally recommended treatments
The following treatments with conditional recommendation have evidence that supports them leading to good outcomes for those living with PTSD.
- Brief eclectic psychotherapy: This treatment combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychodynamic approach to work on changing the emotions of shame and guilt. The relationship between the patient and therapist is emphasized in this form of psychotherapy,
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy: EMDR combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements to help manage emotions tied to traumatic events. The therapy gets the individual to briefly focus on the memory causing trauma while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements). It has been effective for people with PTSD from car accidents.
- Narrative exposure therapy: NET helps those with PTSD establish a coherent life narrative in which to contextualize traumatic experiences. It is known for its use in group treatment for refugees.
- Medications: Sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine can help treat PTSD.
When to See a Medical Provider
If symptoms of PTSD last longer than a month, disrupt your daily routine, and impact your relationships, speak with a medical provider.
A psychiatrist or psychologist can offer a springboard for discussing treatment plans that may suit you.
However, if PTSD triggers suicidal thoughts:
- Call 911 immediately
- Call your mental health provider
- Call a suicide hotline number such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use its webchat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
PTSD Treatments. (2020).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (2019).
How Common Is PTSD in Adults? (2022).
PTSD: National Center for PTSD. (2022).