Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Overview

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating mental disorder that can occur when a person has directly experienced — or even just witnessed — an extremely traumatic, tragic, or terrifying event. People with PTSD usually have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.

Posttraumatic stress disorder, once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue, was first brought to public attention by war veterans after the Civil War in the United States (and internationally, after World War I), but it can result from any number of traumatic incidents other than wartime. These include kidnapping, serious accidents such as car or train wrecks, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, violent attacks such as a mugging, rape, or torture, or being held captive. The event that triggers it may be something that threatened the person’s life or the life of someone close to him or her. Or the event could be something witnessed, such as the destruction after a plane crash.

Most people with post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections — called flashbacks — during the day. The nightmares or recollections may come and go, and a person may be free of them for weeks at a time, and then experience them daily for no particular reason.

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or anxiety. Symptoms may be mild or severe — people may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. In severe cases, they may have trouble working or socializing. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was initiated by a person — such as a murder, as opposed to a flood.

Symptoms
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), posttraumatic stress disorder involves five main components: experiencing a traumatic event, re-experiencing the event, engaging in avoidance, suffering from these experiences, and an increase in arousal symptoms (e.g., feeling “on edge” all the time).

The primary symptoms of PTSD revolve around experiencing a traumatic event — either directly, by witnessing it, or indirectly (by knowing someone who experienced it). The traumatic event must either involve death, serious injury, and/or sexual violence.

PTSD also involves a constant re-experiencing of the event, or intrusive thoughts or memories of the event. Many people with this condition experience nightmares and flashbacks of the event. They will often be more emotional or upset upon the anniversary of the event, or being reminded of it.

People diagnosed with PTSD also engage in avoidance of any types of feelings, people, or situations associated with the traumatic event. They experience significant problems in their everyday life due to these symptoms, such as having problems with remembering things, having a distorted sense of blame, being stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, and feeling detached, disconnected or isolated from others.

Finally, a person with PTSD feels “on edge” much of the time, resulting in increased irritability, difficulty with sleep and concentration.

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