Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that sometimes results from exposure to some kind of traumatic event. Any intensely distressing experience might qualify as traumatic, but common traumatic events range from upsetting events like an accident or the loss of a loved one to more extreme events, such as rape, war, or natural disaster. In some cases, PTSD can also be caused by hearing about a traumatic event that a loved one has undergone, rather than experience such an event directly.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. It’s normal to experience intense fear, anxiety, and sadness during and after such an experience, and for some people, these feelings subside on their own over time. But for many, living through such experiences can lead to mental health challenges that interfere with day-to-day life. Scientists do not yet know exactly why some people develop PTSD and others do not, but experiencing symptoms of PTSD is never a sign of weakness or failure.

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How common is PTSD?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 7.7 million Americans ages 18 and older have PTSD. Furthermore, the same organization notes that 67% of people who are exposed to mass violence develop PTSD, which is a higher rate than those who develop the condition in response to other traumas such as natural disasters. 

Veterans may be at particularly high risk for developing PTSD, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reporting that 18.5% of returning veterans report symptoms of PTSD or depression.

The American Psychological Association also notes that women are about twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, and that they often wait longer to seek help managing their symptoms.

What are some symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD vary widely, but clinical diagnosis requires the presence of symptoms from each of the following categories. For an acute trauma reaction to become clinical PTSD, symptoms must persist for one month or more.

  • Intrusive symptoms like flashbacks and/or nightmares: You may find yourself reliving the memory of the traumatic event or having nightmares about trauma.

  • Avoidance symptoms: You might avoid thoughts or experiences that remind you of the traumatic event.

  • Symptoms related to negative changes in thought or mood, which can include any of the following, among others:

    • Persistent anger, sadness, or mood swings

    • Intense anxiety and difficulty relaxing

    • Feelings of guilt or shame, possibly including a sense that the trauma was somehow your fault

    • Emotional numbness or lack of energy

Some people also experience physical symptoms including headaches, digestive issues, and/or changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Different types of PTSD

Again, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. However, some common variations on PTSD and its causes include:

  • PTSD with delayed onset: In this type of PTSD, symptoms begin more than six months after the traumatic event.

  • PTSD with dissociation: For some people, the symptoms described above are accompanied by feelings of unreality, as if you were not actually present during the traumatic event and may not be present even in your current day-to-day life. This type of PTSD has its own clinical diagnosis and may be treated differently.

  • Acute Stress Disorder: Acute Stress Disorder involves the same kinds of experiences and symptoms as PTSD, but it has a shorter duration of one month or less. If this disorder lasts longer than one month, it becomes clinical PTSD.

  • Collective trauma: Collective trauma is not a diagnosis, but rather a particular subset of traumatic experience that can often lead to PTSD. Collective traumas apply to an entire group, community, or even nation, with individual reactions varying within the group. Examples of this kind of trauma include war, genocide, mass shootings, natural disasters, and some effects of climate change.

What to do if you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD

If you’re struggling with PTSD, you have a variety of options. These include:

  • Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you better understand your psychological and emotional responses to trauma, and and who will use proven techniques to help improve your symptoms and mood. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)

  • Mindfulness Practices: Some studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness practice can help reduce mental health symptoms related to trauma. Because the stillness and contemplation these practices often require can be triggering for those who have gone through traumatic experiences, you may want to start with short, simple practices or seek individual guidance from a more experienced practitioner. 

  • Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-622-4357 can also help you locate resource and treatment options. Please visit our page on Immediate Help for additional regional and national resources.

What should I look for in a therapist for challenges related to trauma?

A variety of treatment models can be helpful for challenges related to trauma. A few of the most common are as follows:

Find therapists specializing in PTSD near you