Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event, causing flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.
Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.
Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.
PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.
Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
Intensity of symptoms
PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you're stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of what you went through. For example, you may hear a car backfire and relive combat experiences. Or you may see a report on the news about a sexual assault and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.
When to see a doctor
If you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they're severe, or if you feel you're having trouble getting your life back under control, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Getting treatment as soon as possible can help prevent PTSD symptoms from getting worse.
If you have suicidal thoughts
If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, get help right away through one or more of these resources:
When to get emergency help
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
If you know someone who's in danger of attempting suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person to keep him or her safe. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.
You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.
Doctors aren't sure why some people get PTSD. As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:
People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, such as:
Kinds of traumatic events
The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:
Many other traumatic events also can lead to PTSD, such as fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack, and other extreme or life-threatening events.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your whole life — your job, your relationships, your health and your enjoyment of everyday activities.
Having PTSD may also increase your risk of other mental health problems, such as:
After surviving a traumatic event, many people have PTSD-like symptoms at first, such as being unable to stop thinking about what's happened. Fear, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt — all are common reactions to trauma. However, the majority of people exposed to trauma do not develop long-term post-traumatic stress disorder.
Getting timely help and support may prevent normal stress reactions from getting worse and developing into PTSD. This may mean turning to family and friends who will listen and offer comfort. It may mean seeking out a mental health professional for a brief course of therapy. Some people may also find it helpful to turn to their faith community.
Support from others also may help prevent you from turning to unhealthy coping methods, such as misuse of alcohol or drugs.
To diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, your doctor will likely:
Diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an event that involved the actual or possible threat of death, violence or serious injury. Your exposure can happen in one or more of these ways:
You may have PTSD if the problems you experience after this exposure continue for more than a month and cause significant problems in your ability to function in social and work settings and negatively impact relationships.
Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. The primary treatment is psychotherapy, but can also include medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms by:
You don't have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own.
Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:
Your therapist can help you develop stress management skills to help you better handle stressful situations and cope with stress in your life.
All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your mental health professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.
You may try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect with others going through similar experiences.
Several types of medications can help improve symptoms of PTSD:
You and your doctor can work together to figure out the best medication, with the fewest side effects, for your symptoms and situation. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.
Tell your doctor about any side effects or problems with medications. You may need to try more than one or a combination of medications, or your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or medication schedule before finding the right fit for you.
If stress and other problems caused by a traumatic event affect your life, see your doctor or mental health professional. You can also take these actions as you continue with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:
When someone you love has PTSD
The person you love may seem like a different person than you knew before the trauma — angry and irritable, for example, or withdrawn and depressed. PTSD can significantly strain the emotional and mental health of loved ones and friends.
Hearing about the trauma that led to your loved one's PTSD may be painful for you and even cause you to relive difficult events. You may find yourself avoiding his or her attempts to talk about the trauma or feeling hopeless that your loved one will get better. At the same time, you may feel guilty that you can't fix your loved one or hurry up the process of healing.
Remember that you can't change someone. However, you can:
If you think you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect.
Take a trusted family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided to you.
Before your appointment, make a list of:
Some basic questions to ask your doctor or mental health professional may include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Be ready to answer them to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on. Your doctor may ask: