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Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating anxiety disorder that occurs after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. The event may involve a real or perceived threat of injury or death. This can include a natural disaster, combat, an assault, physical or sexual abuse, or other trauma.

People with PTSD have a heightened sense of danger. Their natural fight-or-flight response is damaged, causing them to feel stressed or fearful, even in safe situations.

Once called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue,” PTSD has received public attention recently because of the high number of war veterans with the disorder. But PTSD can happen to anyone at any age. It occurs as a response to chemical changes in the brain after exposure to threatening events. PTSD is not the result of a character flaw or weakness.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD can disrupt your normal activities and your ability to function. Symptoms can be triggered by words, sounds, or situations that remind you of trauma. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms fall into the following groups:


  • flashbacks, in which it feels as if the event is occurring over and over
  • vivid, intrusive memories of the event
  • frequent nightmares about the event
  • mental or physical discomfort when reminded of the event


  • emotional apathy
  • lack of interest in daily activities
  • memory loss of the actual event
  • inability to express feelings
  • avoidance of people or situations that are reminders of the event

Arousal and Reactivity

  • difficulty concentrating
  • startling easily and having exaggerated response to startling events
  • constant feeling of being on guard
  • irritability
  • bouts of anger
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep

Cognition and Mood

    negative thoughts about yourself
  • distorted feelings of guilt, worry, or blame
  • trouble remembering the event
  • decreased interest in once enjoyable activities

In addition, people with PTSD may experience depression and panic attacks. Panic attacks can cause:

  • agitation
  • excitability
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting
  • a racing or pounding heart
  • headaches

How Is PTSD Diagnosed?

There is no specific test to diagnose PTSD. The condition can be difficult to diagnose because people with the disorder may be reluctant to recall or discuss the trauma or their symptoms. A mental health specialist is best qualified to diagnose PTSD. These specialists include psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners.

Diagnosis of PTSD requires experiencing all of the following for one month or longer:

  • at least one re-experience symptom
  • at least one avoidance symptom
  • at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • at least two cognition and mood symptoms

Your symptoms must be serious enough to interfere with daily activities. These activities include going to work or school, or being around friends and family members.

When to Seek Help for PTSD

If you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD, remember that you’re not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 8 million adults have PTSD in a given year.

If you have frequent upsetting thoughts, are unable to control your actions, or fear that you might hurt yourself or others, seek help right away.

How Is PTSD Treated?

If you are diagnosed with PTSD, your doctor will likely prescribe a combination of therapies, including:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, or “talk therapy,” to encourage you to remember the traumatic event and to express your feelings about it. This can help desensitize you to the trauma and reduce your symptoms.
  • Support groups, where you can discuss your feelings with other people who have PTSD. This will help you realize that your symptoms are not unusual and that you’re not alone.
  • Medications, such antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleep aids, to decrease the frequency of intrusive and frightening thoughts and to help you get some rest. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two antidepressants for the specific treatment of PTSD: sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil).

Many people who suffer from PTSD turn to illicit drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms. While these methods may temporarily alleviate your symptoms of PTSD, they don’t treat the underlying cause of stress. They can even make some symptoms worse. If you have trouble with substance abuse, your therapist may also recommend a 12-step program to reduce your dependency on drugs or alcohol.


Psychotherapy is an important tool to help you cope with PTSD symptoms. It can help you identify symptom triggers, manage your symptoms, and face your fears. Support from friends and family is helpful too.

Learning about PTSD will help you understand your feelings and how to effectively deal with them. Living a healthy lifestyle and taking care of yourself will also help with your PTSD. Make sure to eat a well-balanced diet, get enough rest and exercise, and avoid anything that can make stress or anxiety worse.

There are support groups for PTSD all over the country and most likely in your area. You can find one with a quick Internet search, or by using one of the following resources:


Veterans Groups

Other PTSD Support Groups

What Is the Outlook for People with PTSD?

If you have PTSD, early treatment can help alleviate your symptoms. It can also give you effective strategies for coping with intrusive thoughts, memories, and flashbacks. Through therapy, support groups, and medication, you can get on the road to recovery. Always keep in mind that you’re not alone.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Maureen Donohue
Published on: Jul 15, 2012on: Mar 23, 2016

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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