Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition developed after a traumatic event. Commonly associated with military combat, PTSD can occur after a natural disaster, accident, or another event involving a real or perceived threat of injury or death.
If you have, or believe you have PTSD, you’re not alone. Approximately 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year, and 7% to 8% of the population will develop this condition at some point in their lives.1
Many people with PTSD struggle with adjusting to day-to-day life and coping with symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event. Without treatment, symptoms can last for years — and interfere with many aspects of your life.2
Seeking treatment for PTSD can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms and effectively manage and reduce your symptoms.
We can group PTSD into four main categories:
Physical and emotional reaction changes
Negative changes in mood and thinking patterns
Intrusive memories and thoughts
PTSD can trigger changes in your physical and emotional reactions to daily occurrences. These reactions are also known as arousal symptoms
These reactive changes can harm your ability to work, go to school, or maintain close relationships. Some of these symptoms, such as self-destructive or aggressive behavior, may result in legal problems as well.
PTSD can cause significant harm to your mental health. These negative changes to your thoughts and mood are very similar to depression, and these conditions may occur simultaneously.
In this symptom group, you may experience:
The cognitive symptoms of PTSD can interfere with your daily life, and negative mental space can make it more difficult to seek help. If you experience thoughts of suicide or harming yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.4
Unwanted, unavoidable thoughts of the traumatic event are common among people with PTSD, leading to emotional turmoil and distress.
Intrusive memories and thoughts may involve:
To avoid intrusive memories, many people with PTSD engage in behavior to avoid triggers. If you believe you have PTSD, you find yourself:
A PTSD diagnosis requires the presence of a traumatic event where there was a threat of violence, severe injury, or death and experiencing symptoms in each of the four categories for at least a month after the event.6
You may have experienced the traumatic event directly, witnessed it, or learned that someone close to you experienced it. PTSD can also occur if you confront the aftermath of this violence on a regular basis, such as during military combat or while providing treatment to people with serious injuries.
If you experienced a traumatic event and believe you have PTSD, seek a diagnosis from a medical professional as soon as possible. During your examination, your doctor will learn more about your condition by:
Your doctor may also ask you how long your symptoms have been occurring and how they have impacted your daily life. If their evaluation determines you have PTSD, there are many treatment options available to you.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder often have additional mental health issues as well. PTSD often coexists with conditions such as anxiety, major depression, and substance abuse. Exposure to a traumatic event may lead to the development of other serious mental health disorders.
Let’s take a look at some of these conditions.
If you have this condition, you may:
Doctors diagnose acute stress disorder by looking for signs of dissociation and the presence of one symptom from each of the four PTSD symptom categories.
An adjustment disorder occurs when you experience more stress than normal during a stressful or unexpected situation.8 This high level of stress will lead to negative emotional reactions that impact your work, school, and relationships.
Symptoms of adjustment disorders vary from person to person, but may include:
Adjustment disorders can begin within three months of the traumatic event and may last for up to six months. In severe cases, the condition may last for longer than six months.
Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) affects children who do not receive the level of nurturing or affection they need.9 As a result, a child with this condition does not develop a bond with their parents and has the same level of comfort with strangers as they do with adults in their household.
Symptoms of DSED include:
Traumatic events and experiences are often the underlying cause of DSED. Children who experience severe neglect, suffer violence at an early age or have not had a stable home environment (such as children in orphanages or foster homes) are at high risk for this condition.
Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is another condition that affects children’s attachment to their caregivers.10 With RAD, a child cannot establish a healthy attachment with a parent or caregiver, often as the result of abuse, foster care or orphanage experiences, or premature separation from their primary caregiver.
Symptoms of RAD may include:
Like DSED, children at-risk for RAD are likely to have experienced a traumatic event in their lives. As they grow older, they may experience inhibited symptoms where they become emotionally withdrawn or disinhibited symptoms where they become extremely dependent on others.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a condition characterized by excessive feelings of worry about any number of things, from finances to money to family.11 Approximately 5.7% of United States adults will experience GAD at some point in their lives.12
Doctors diagnose GAD looking for uncontrollable worry for more days than not over the past six months, and any three of the following symptoms:
You may have GAD before experiencing a traumatic event and developing PTSD, or you may develop GAD afterward. If you have GAD and experience a traumatic event, you may be more likely to develop PTSD than a person who does not have GAD.
A panic disorder causes panic attacks or sudden feelings of intense fear without the presence of actual danger.13 If you have more than one panic attack or experience fear about when another panic attack will occur, you may have a panic disorder.
Symptoms of panic attacks may include:
Panic attacks can occur suddenly or after exposure to certain triggers. Major stress, family history, changes in brain function, and stress-sensitive temperament are risk factors for this condition.
Panic disorders and PTSD may seem similar, but they are very different conditions. Panic attacks can occur for a number of reasons, but you develop PTSD as the result of a traumatic event. You can have a panic disorder and PTSD at the same time and may experience panic attack symptoms when having a PTSD-related flashback.
PTSD is triggered after you experience a traumatic event where the real or perceived threat of death or severe injury is present. You do not have to experience the event directly; witnessing, hearing about, or seeing the aftermath of the traumatic event may also lead to PTSD.14
Examples of traumatic events that may lead to PTSD include:
Anyone can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, from the very old to the very young. However, some people are at a higher risk for this condition than others.
Many aggravating factors can increase the likelihood you will develop PTSD, including family histories, substance abuse, and a lack of post-trauma support.
Trauma has a cumulative effect on our lives, meaning that its effects build over time. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events during your life, especially during childhood, can increase your risk of developing PTSD after subsequent trauma. If you have experienced trauma or abuse in the past, you may have a greater chance of developing PTSD later in life.18
In addition, stressful life experiences can also contribute to the development of PTSD. Unemployment, divorce, financial strain, and other stressors can impact our brain’s stress response, increasing the likelihood of PTSD after we experience a traumatic event.19
After experiencing a traumatic event, seeking help is important for your mental recovery. If you don’t have those support systems in place, you are at a much higher risk of developing PTSD.
Seeking support can help you process your trauma in a safe, healthy environment and help reduce reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse. Avoiding help or refusing to acknowledge the trauma can harm your recovery and increase your PTSD risk.22
Your coping mechanisms play a large role in the development of PTSD after a traumatic event. If you tend to misuse substances such as drugs and alcohol, you may rely on these substances to cope after trauma — increasing your PTSD risk in the process.23
Relying on substances stunts your healing process, preventing you from seeking the treatment you need to process your trauma.
Genetic history of anxiety or depression, or preexisting anxiety and depression, may increase your PTSD risk.
The way your brain regulates its stress response depends on the chemicals and hormones in the brain, and mental health conditions affect your chemical balance. You may have a higher risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event with these stress responses in place.24
While PTSD can affect every area of your life, proper treatment can help you manage your symptoms and regain control. However, many complications can arise as a result of this condition — and seeking help is crucial to reducing its impact.
PTSD is associated with a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. Approximately 80% of people with PTSD will experience at least one other psychiatric disorder during their lifetime. 25
Symptoms of depression and anxiety, in particular, are common among PTSD patients. People with PTSD are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop depression than people without PTSD.26 Generalized anxiety disorder is also common, with 40% of veterans with PTSD also having this condition.27
Many people with PTSD turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the effects of the trauma. Approximately 52% of men and 28% of women with PTSD meet the lifetime criteria for alcohol abuse, and 35% of men and 27% of women with PTSD struggle with drug abuse.28
When you experience a traumatic event, your brain will produce endorphins to help reduce pain and help you cope with the stress of the trauma. When these endorphins dissipate, your body may enter endorphin withdrawal — and engage in drinking or drug use to replace those positive feelings.29
However, the increased use of drugs and alcohol can lead to significant physical and emotional consequences. You may need more alcohol or drugs to produce the same endorphin-replacing effect, become chemically dependent on the substance, and progress into an addiction.
According to the above statistics, PTSD is more common in eating disorders that involve binging and purging as opposed to starvation. It is unclear why rates of PTSD are high among people with eating disorders, but many theories exist.
Trauma may impact the way you view your body and your sense of self, and these negative perceptions may lead to disordered eating. Binging and purging may provide sensations of relief or numbness, leading these disorders to become coping mechanisms for people with PTSD.
People with PTSD are 5.3 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, and 13 times more likely if they have another mental health condition. In addition, 24% of military members with PTSD experienced suicidal thoughts within the past year.31
It is unclear why PTSD increases suicidal thoughts and actions, but the most important thing to remember is that help is available and recovery is possible.
If you have thoughts of ending your life or hurting yourself or others, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The underlying cause of PTSD is a traumatic event, and you cannot prevent this trauma from happening to you. However, the steps you take immediately after this event can help you manage your normal stress response, preventing your mental state from worsening and developing into PTSD.32
Some people develop PTSD while others do not. This phenomenon is due in part to the presence of resilience factors, or factors that may help reduce the risk of PTSD.33
Resilience factors include:
These factors may be present before the event, or you may take these actions immediately afterward.
After a traumatic event, you may feel confused, overwhelmed, and have high levels of emotional stress. Talking through the traumatic event with someone you trust can help you dispel these negative emotions.
Speaking to a loved one about your experience can help reduce this stress and provide comfort, both of which can prevent your stress response from developing into PTSD.34
If you don’t have someone in your life who you can talk to, or you need additional support, seeking help from others who have shared the same experience. Support groups for trauma survivors can provide significant benefits after a traumatic event.35
These gatherings allow trauma survivors to share tips, stories, and coping strategies to help others who are new to the shared experience. Through these groups, you can avoid social isolation and ease your emotional stress, which may help prevent the onset of PTSD.
Positive emotions and laughter can help you build a pathway to healing. In particular, laughter helps relax your body and release negative emotions, reducing your stress in the process. Laughter also releases feel-good endorphins that can help reduce reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms.36
All of these benefits have a positive impact on your mental health and may reduce the traumatic event’s long-term effects.
A positive mindset can do wonders for trauma survivors — even down to the language you use. Identifying as a survivor rather than a victim can help reduce negative self-perception and increase self-empowerment, both of which can help prevent your stress from developing into PTSD.37
Finding positive meaning in the trauma may also help reduce stress and ease emotional anguish. Visiting a therapist or psychiatrist as soon as possible following the traumatic event allows you to talk through your experiences and develop a new, more positive perspective to prevent PTSD.38
Managing your PTSD symptoms can reduce their impact on your life and prevent you from experiencing any complications. This treatment can help you develop positive coping mechanisms, develop a positive mindset, and effectively address your symptoms.
PTSD treatment programs often involve a combination of medication and talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy.
Cognitive Processing Therapy
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a form of talk therapy for PTSD patients. You will discuss your experience with a therapist, usually over the course of 12 sessions.39 Your therapist will help you identify thoughts and beliefs about yourself and your trauma, and teach you coping strategies that can help challenge these thoughts.
Through this treatment, you can better understand your thinking patterns and identify the negative thoughts preventing you from healing.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is another therapy option that helps you confront, process, and change your reaction to traumatic memories. This treatment combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements designed to reduce negative emotions tied to the traumatic event.41
During EMDR, you will discuss your negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences with your therapist. They will help you develop healthier coping strategies to handle these negative feelings. In later sessions, your therapist will guide you through desensitization, which involves following their finger movements with your eyes while keeping thoughts of the trauma in the back of your mind.
Your therapist will follow desensitization with sessions that reinforce your positive mindset. At the conclusion of EMDR treatment, you will hopefully process your trauma, and no longer feel the negative emotions when recalling the traumatic experience.
Stress Inoculation Training
You may encounter memories of the traumatic event in unexpected places, potentially leading to flashbacks and panic attacks. Stress inoculation training is a form of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) that helps you recognize and train your response to these triggers, reducing their impact.42
Your therapist will help you identify these triggers and learn coping strategies, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, that can help reduce their effects. In addition, stress inoculation training involves identifying and challenging negative thoughts that are blocking your healing process.
While there is no cure for PTSD, certain medications can help you manage your symptoms and reduce their severity.
Common medications include:
Antidepressants: Depression is a common co-occurring disorder with PTSD, and these medications can help improve these symptoms. Antidepressants may also ease other PTSD symptoms, such as sleep problems and difficulty concentrating.
Anti-anxiety medications: PTSD may trigger or aggravate severe anxiety and panic attacks, especially during flashbacks. These medications can help reduce the severity of these symptoms.
If you need medication for PTSD, see your doctor as soon as possible. They will examine your symptoms, explain the effects of different medications, and help you determine which treatment program is right for you.
If you experience severe, disturbing thoughts and emotions about the traumatic event more than a month after it happened, or if you feel like you cannot take control of your life after the trauma, visit a doctor as soon as possible.
If you have suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak to a trained crisis counselor.
If you or a loved one may attempt suicide, call 911 immediately or visit your local emergency room.
Schedule and appointment to meet with a therapist or doctor.
Talk to a trusted friend or family member.
Reach out to us at Newsong Recovery to receive mental health treatment.
You should always seek mental health treatment following a traumatic event to prevent your normal stress response from progressing into PTSD. Seeking help as soon as possible can help reduce your emotional stress, allow you to process and cope with the trauma in a healthy way. and receive the support you need to recovery.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that you may develop after you experience a traumatic event, such as military combat, sexual assault, or a car accident. While it’s normal to undergo emotional stress after experiencing this trauma, PTSD symptoms last for much longer than usual, lingering for months afterwards. These symptoms can interfere with your daily activities and cause significant complications if left untreated, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, and difficulty going to work or school.
Anyone can develop PTSD after experiencing, witnessing, or having a friend or family member experience a traumatic event. This condition can also develop after a sudden, unexpected death.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. Certain factors can increase the chances that a person will develop PTSD, such as:
If you experience a traumatic event and you continue to have the following symptoms for more than a month, you may have PTSD.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor or therapist as soon as possible if you believe you have PTSD.
PTSD affects approximately 8 million American adults per year. About 10% of women and 4% will develop PTSD sometime in their lives, averaging out to between 7% and 8% of the general U.S. population. In addition, 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one type of trauma in their lifetime.44
Like most mental illnesses, you cannot cure PTSD or make the condition disappear completely. Instead, PTSD symptoms are managed through medications and therapy designed to alleviate your brain’s stress response to triggers that remind you of the traumatic event.
Common types of therapy for PTSD include:
With effective treatment, PTSD symptoms may gradually fade over time and become less of an obstacle in daily life.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. You may be able to prevent the onset of PTSD by seeking social support and mental health treatment as soon as possible following the traumatic event.
If you believe you may have PTSD or you may be at risk of developing PTSD, contact your doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible. Proper treatment and support can help you manage your symptoms and prevent them from interfering with your daily life.
If you have a loved one who has PTSD, you can help them by:
Social support is crucial for people with PTSD, but your loved one may not want your help right away. In these situations, it is important to respect your loved one’s wishes, stay in contact with them, and let them know you are available to help when they need it.
PTSD, if left untreated, can last for years — often for the rest of the survivor’s life. With proper treatment, however, symptoms of PTSD can fade over time. A survivor may continue to experience PTSD symptoms when confronted with reminders of the traumatic event.