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Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

You may have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if you’ve been through a traumatic event and are having trouble dealing with it. Such events may include the death of a loved one, a car crash, rape, domestic violence, military combat, or violent crime. While it's normal to have some anxiety after such an event, it usually goes away in time. But with PTSD, the anxiety is more intense and keeps coming back. And the trauma is relived through nightmares, intrusive memories, and flashbacks (vivid memories that seem real). The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with relationships and make it hard to cope with daily life. But it can be treated. With help, you can feel better.

Man sitting on bed at night holding his head looking distraught, wife sitting with hand on his shoulder consoling him.

How does it feel?

Symptoms of PTSD often start within a few months of the event. Here are some common symptoms:

  • You startle more easily, and feel anxious and on edge all the time. This can lead to sleep problems. It a can cause you to feel overwhelmed or become angry or upset more easily. Panic attacks (sudden, intense feelings of terror and a strong need to escape from wherever you are) can also occur.

  • You relive the event through nightmares and flashbacks. During these, you may feel strong emotions and as though you’re reliving the event all over again.

  • You stay away from people, places, or activities that remind you of the trauma. You may hold in your feelings and become emotionally numb. It may be hard to focus at work or school or to relax with friends. You may be afraid to let people get close to you.

  • You may also have trouble remembering parts of the traumatic event. Negative thoughts about oneself and feelings of guilt and shame are also common PTSD symptoms.

Who does it affect?

Not everyone who survives a trauma will have PTSD. But many will. In fact, millions of people have the condition. PTSD can happen to anyone, but it most often develops after a person feels his or her or another’s life is threatened.

You’re at risk for PTSD if you have experienced or witnessed:

  • A rape or sexual abuse

  • A mugging or carjacking

  • A car accident or plane crash

  • A life-threatening illness

  • War

  • Domestic violence

  • Childhood abuse

  • Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes

  • The sudden death of a loved one

Finding help

The first step is to talk with a trusted counselor or healthcare provider. He or she can help you take the next step to treatment. This may include therapy (also called counseling) and medicine. Many therapists now practice what is called "trauma-informed care." These therapists use specific interventions that acknowledge and address trauma’s consequences and help people heal.

Are you having suicidal thoughts?

You may be feeling helpless, hopeless, and that you can’t go on. You may even have thoughts of suicide. But help is available. There are ways to ease this pain and manage the problems in your life.

If you are thinking about harming or killing yourself, please tell your healthcare provider or someone you care about immediately or go to the nearest crisis walk-in center or emergency room.

You can also call, toll-free:

  • 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433) 

  • 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

To learn more

  • American Psychiatric Association 888-357-7924 www.psychiatry.org/patients-families

  • American Psychological Association www.apa.org/helpcenter

  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America www.adaa.org

  • Mental Health America www.nmha.org

  • National Center for PTSD www.ptsd.va.gov

  • National Institute of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov/topics/topic-page-ptsd.shtml

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 4/1/2020
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