Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event, causing the person who survived the event to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb.
PTSD was first brought to public attention by war veterans and was once referred to as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue." The likelihood of developing PTSD depends on the severity and duration of the event, as well as the person's nearness to it.
The event(s) that triggers PTSD may be:
Something that occurred in the person's life
Something that occurred in the life of someone close to him or her
Something the person witnessed
Serious accidents (such as car or train wrecks)
Natural disasters (such as floods or earthquakes)
Man-made tragedies (such as bombings, a plane crash)
Violent personal attacks (such as a mugging, rape, torture, being held captive, or kidnapping)
Abuse in childhood
Persons with PTSD experience extreme emotional, mental, and physical distress when exposed to situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some may repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections or flashbacks during the day, and may also experience the following:
Feeling detached or numb
Feeling jittery or "on guard"
Being easily startled
Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
Trouble feeling affectionate
Feeling irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent
Avoidance of certain places or situations that bring back memories
The symptoms of PTSD fall into 4 broad categories:
Re-experiencing the event
Avoiding stimuli associated with the event
Mood and cognitive symptoms
Increased physiologic arousal
The following are the most common symptoms of PTSD. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Trouble working or socializing
Flashbacks or intrusive images (A person having a flashback—which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings—usually believes that the traumatic event is happening all over again.)
Losing touch with reality
Reenacting the event for a period of seconds or hours or, very rarely, days
The symptoms of PTSD may resemble other psychiatric conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
Not every person who experiences a trauma develops PTSD, or experiences symptoms at all. PTSD is diagnosed only if symptoms last more than one month. In those who do have PTSD, symptoms usually begin within three months of the trauma, but can also start months or years later.
PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood, and may be accompanied by the following:
The length of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, others have symptoms that last much longer.
Specific treatment for PTSD will be determined by your health care provider based on:
Your age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of the disease
Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
Expectations for the course of the disease
Your opinion or preference
As persons with PTSD are more susceptible to other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse, treatment is critical and may include:
Medication (i.e., antidepressants and/or anxiety-reducing medications)