Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen to a person after experiencing a traumatic event that has caused them to feel fearful, shocked, or helpless. It can have long-term effects, including flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety.
Examples of events that can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include wars, crimes, fires, accidents, death of a loved one, or abuse of some form. Thoughts and memories recur even though the danger has passed.
It is thought to affect between 7 and 8 percent of the population, and women are more likely to be affected than men.
Instead of feeling better as time goes on, the individual may become more anxious and fearful. PTSD can disrupt a person’s life for years, but treatment can help them recover.
Symptoms and diagnosis
PTSD can arise as a result of a traumatic event or experience.
Symptoms usually start within 3 months of an event, but they can begin later.
For a person to receive a diagnosis of PTSD, they must meet criteria that are set out by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
According to these guidelines, the person must:
1. Have been exposed to death or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence whether directly, through witnessing it, by it happening to a loved one, or during professional duties
2. Experience the following for more than one month:
one or more intrusion symptoms
one or more avoidance symptoms
two or more symptoms that affect mood and thinking
two or more arousal and reactivity symptoms that began after the trauma
Here are some examples of these four types of symptom:
flashbacks and a sensation that the event is happening again
refusing to discuss the event
avoiding situations that remind the person of the event
Arousal and reactivity symptoms:
irritability and angry outbursts
hypersensitivity to possible dangers
feeling tense and anxious
Symptoms that affect mood and thinking:
inability to remember some aspects of the event
feelings of guilt and blame
feeling detached and estranged from others and emotionally and mentally numbed
having a reduced interest in life
mental health problems, such as depression, phobias, and anxiety
In addition, the symptoms must lead to distress or difficulty coping with work or relationships, and they must not be due to the use of medication or other substances, or another health condition.
There may also be physical symptoms, but these are not included in the DSM-5 criteria:
physical effects include sweating, shaking, headaches, dizziness, stomach problems, aches and pains, and chest pain
a weakened immune system can lead to more frequent infections
sleep disturbances can result in tiredness and other problems
There may be long-term behavioral changes that contribute to problems and work and a breakdown in relationships. The person may start to consume more alcohol than previously, or to misuse drugs or medications.
Children and teens
In those aged 6 years or under, symptoms may include:
bedwetting after learning to use the bathroom
inability to speak
acting out the event in play
being clingy with an adult
Between the ages of 5 and 12 years, the child may not have flashbacks and they may not have difficulty remembering parts of the event. However, they may remember it in a different order, or feel that there was a sign that it was going to happen.
They may also act out the trauma or express it through play, pictures, and stories. They may have nightmares and be irritable. They may find it hard to go to school or spend time with friends or studying.
From the age of 8 years and above, children generally tend to display similar reactions to adults.
Between the ages of 12 and 18 years, the person may show disruptive or disrespectful, impulsive or aggressive behavior.
They may feel guilty for not acting differently during the event, or they may consider revenge.
Children who have experienced sexual abuse are more likely to:
feel fear, sadness, anxiety, and isolation
have a low sense of self-worth
behave in an aggressive manner
display unusual sexual behavior
misuse drugs or alcohol
As part of the diagnostic process, the person may be given a screening test to assess whether or not they have PTSD.
The time taken for this can range from 15 minutes to several one-hour sessions. A longer assessment may be used if there are legal implications or if a disability claim depends on it.
If symptoms disappear after a few weeks, there may be a diagnosis of acute stress disorder.
PTSD tends to last for longer and the symptoms are more severe and may not appear until some time after the event.
Many people recover within 6 months, but some continue to experience symptoms for several years.
Some people who return from conflict zones experience PTSD.
PTSD can develop after a traumatic event.
loss of a loved one, whether or not this involved violence
rape or other types of abuse
being a victim of crime
receiving a life-threatening diagnosis
Any situation that triggers fear, shock, horror, or helplessness can lead to PTSD.
It remains unclear why some people develop PTSD while others do not. However, the following risk factors may increase the chance of experiencing symptoms: