The Basics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that some people develop after dealing with a traumatic event. The type of events that cause PTSD aren’t all the same, but they are typically shocking, scary, dangerous, or extremely negative in some way.

For many people, the emotions and issues that surround the wake of a traumatic event fade as time goes on. Usually, the most severe responses to a trauma begin to soften within a few weeks. When someone has PTSD, however, this isn’t the case. Those responses remain or recur, causing someone to relive the traumatic event or their response to it, especially when triggered by an unrelated event (such as a loud noise) or stress (such as an upcoming test or a fight with a loved one).

What Causes PTSD?

PTSD is experienced after trauma. But it’s not experienced by everyone who goes through trauma. Medical research indicates that certain types of traumas may create a higher risk of someone developing PTSD, and biological factors may also increase someone’s risk.

Some events that can put someone at risk of developing PTSD in the future include:

PTSD doesn’t typically manifest immediately after a traumatic event. During the first few days and weeks after a trauma, it’s natural for someone to feel disrupted and to react abnormally to a variety of situations. It’s only when this persists for as long as three months after an event that PTSD may be at play. In some cases, someone may appear to deal very well with an issue only to have PTSD symptoms show up weeks, months, or even years later.

PTSD by the Numbers

Women are more likely to struggle with PTSD than men. However, certain types of traumatic events that can cause PTSD are more likely to be experienced by one gender over the other. For example, men are more likely to experience combat, and women are more likely to experience sexual assault.

Prevalence of PTSD by Gender
Men 4%
Women 10%

PTSD isn’t a condition limited to adulthood. Children can also experience PTSD after living through a traumatic event, which can include a natural disaster, a car accident, or another event. The most common reason children deal with PTSD is abuse or neglect, however.

Types of Abuse That Can Trigger PTSD in Children
Type of Abuse % of Cases Reported to Child Protective Services That Involve This Type
Neglect 64%
Physical Abuse 18%
Sexual Abuse 10%
Mental Abuse 7%

Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD symptoms vary by individual, but the diagnostic criteria for adults require that someone meet four requirements for one month or more to be officially diagnosed and treated for PTSD. Those requirements are:

  • One or more re-experience symptom, such as flashbacks, frightening thoughts, or nightmares
  • One or more avoidance symptom, which involves staying away from anything that reminds the person of the experience and/or avoiding feelings or thoughts related to the event
  • Two or more arousal (or reactivity) symptoms, which include feeling on edge, being easily startled, having angry outbursts, or experiencing problems eating or sleeping
  • Two or more mood and cognitive symptoms, which include distorted thoughts, problems concentrating, losing interest in activities that were previously enjoyable, negative thoughts, and problems recalling main details about the traumatic event that caused the PTSD

Treatment for PTSD

Numerous treatments are available for PTSD. How and where someone is treated depends on their individual situation, mental health, and level of trauma. Here are some common methods for treating PTSD in both inpatient and outpatient environments.

  • Prolonged Exposure. This is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It involves approaching the feelings and situations around the trauma gradually to decrease a person’s sensitivity to them and reduce their potential to experience PTSD symptoms. The concept of prolonged exposure is the same as getting into a cool pool slowly so that your body has time to adjust to the new temperature surrounding it. Only with PE, you’re immersing your mind into the memories and feelings surrounding the trauma in a controlled manner with the help of a therapist.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy. This is another form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It takes place over approximately 12 sessions with a therapist, who provides you with tools and training so that you can evaluate trauma-related thoughts and feelings and change them.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Studies show that by moving your eyes in a certain way as you consider thoughts, feelings, and memories, you can better process and then reprogram those thoughts and reactions. EMDR is provided by a licensed therapist who is experienced in the method. Despite sounding very technical, it doesn’t involve scary equipment and simply involves learning to focus with your eyes on certain locations or things while refocusing your thoughts.

How to Get Help & Additional Resources

  • The Office on Women’s Health offers a guide to post-traumatic stress disorder for women, including information about symptoms, causes, risks, diagnosis, and treatment.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about PTSD in children, including symptoms specific to kids, treatment options, and prevention.
  • The Social Security Administration provides a downloadable and printable PTSD fact sheet.
  • The New York City Government provides a downloadable and printable guide to understanding the signs and symptoms of PTSD, which may be helpful if you’re still not sure if you’re dealing with this disorder.
  • However, if you’re struggling with any symptoms related to PTSD, you don’t have to struggle alone. Consider reaching out for assistance in identifying what you may be dealing with so you can work with professionals on the right treatment plan. The National Center for PTSD has links with information on getting help as well as finding a therapist who deals with PTSD.

The information presented in this guide is meant to be informational in nature and not act as medical advice or a treatment recommendation. The purpose of this page is to provide the public with information about PTSD. If you believe you or someone you love is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, reach out for professional assistance from your general physician, a counselor, or a mental health clinic.