Topic Overview What is PTSD? can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something horrible and scary that you see or that happens to you. During this type of event, you think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel afraid or feel that you have no control over what is happening. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Anyone who has gone through a life-threatening event can develop PTSD. But people don't always have to see a traumatic event or have it happen to them to get PTSD. Sometimes learning that a traumatic event happened to a loved one can cause PTSD.
These events can include:
Combat or being sent to a combat zone. Military sexual trauma. Terrorist attacks. Physical violence. Sexual violence, such as rape. Serious accidents, such as a car wreck. Natural disasters, such as a fire, tornado, flood, or earthquake. Life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer. Living in or near a conflict, such as war.
After the event you might find that you are thinking a lot about what happened, avoiding reminders about the event, and thinking negative thoughts about yourself and the world.
What are the symptoms?
After going through a traumatic event, you may:
Feel upset by things that remind you of what happened. Have nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event. You may feel like it's happening all over again. Avoid places or things that remind you of what happened. Often feel bad about yourself and the world. Feel numb or lose interest in things you used to care about. Feel that you are always in danger. Feel anxious, jittery, or irritated. Have trouble sleeping or keeping your mind on one thing.
PTSD symptoms can change your behavior and how you live your life. You may pull away from other people, work all the time, or
. You may find it hard to be in relationships, and you may have problems with your spouse and family. You may become use drugs or alcohol . Some people with PTSD also have depressed , which are sudden feelings of fear or worry that something bad is about to happen. panic attacks
Children can have PTSD too. They may have the symptoms above and symptoms that depend on how old they are. As children get older their symptoms are more like those of adults.
Young children may become upset if their parents are not close by. Or children may have trouble sleeping or suddenly have trouble with toilet training or going to the bathroom. Children who are in the first few years of elementary school (ages 6 to 9) may act out the trauma through play, drawings, or stories. They may complain of physical problems or become more irritable or aggressive. They also may develop fears and anxiety that don't seem to be caused by the traumatic event. What can you do if you think you have PTSD?
If you think you have PTSD, it's important to get treatment. Treatment can work, and early treatment may help reduce long-term symptoms.
If you think you have PTSD:
Talk to your family doctor. Talk to a mental health professional, such as a therapist. If you're a veteran, contact your local VA hospital or Vet Center. Talk to a close friend or family member. He or she may be able to support you and find you help. Talk to a religious leader. If you have thoughts about hurting yourself or someone else, call 911 , 1-800-273-TALK (suicide hotline), or go to a hospital emergency room. How does PTSD develop?
All people with PTSD have personally experienced—or have experienced through others—a traumatic event that caused them to fear for their lives, see horrible things, and feel helpless. Strong emotions caused by the event create changes in the brain that may result in PTSD.
Many people who go through a traumatic event don't get PTSD. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things. These include:
How intense the trauma was. If you lost a loved one or were hurt. How close you were to the event. How strong your reaction was. How much you felt in control of events. How much help and support you got after the event.
Having a history of mental illness, substance use disorder, or childhood trauma may also increase your risk of getting PTSD.
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. About half of people who develop PTSD get better at some time. But other people who develop PTSD always will have some symptoms.
If you have symptoms of PTSD, counseling can help you cope. Your symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships. It is never too late to get professional help or other forms of support that can help you manage the symptoms of PTSD.
Reminders and anniversaries of the event can make symptoms worse.
How is PTSD treated?
Treatments for PTSD include:
Counseling, which can help you understand your thoughts and learn ways to cope with your feelings. This can help you feel more in control and get you back to the activities in your life. A type of counseling called (CBT) is effective for treating PTSD. Cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy are examples of types of CBT that are used. cognitive-behavioral therapy Antidepressant medicines, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They can help with many PTSD symptoms. SSRIs include fluoxetine (such as Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
You may need to try different types of treatment before finding the one that helps you. Your doctor will help you with this. These treatments may include other types of medicines and other forms of counseling, such as group counseling. If you have other problems along with PTSD, such as overuse of alcohol or drugs, you may need treatment for those also.
Treatment can help you feel more in control of your emotions, have fewer symptoms, and enjoy life again.
One Man's Story:
"I can't turn my brain off. Sometimes I stay up all night. The bad part is not staying up, but what's going through my head. I can't stop it."
—Marvin Read more about Marvin. In Their Own Words
Telling others about having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is hard. But for the following people, it's part of recovering.
Read what they say about how PTSD felt, how it affected their families, and how treatment is helping them get better.
One Man's Story:
Marvin and his family survived Hurricane Katrina on a neighbor's rooftop.
"I have visions of being up on the roof and going through it all over again. I just keep seeing the water coming up and up."
—Marvin Read more about Marvin.
One Man's Story:
Tim is an Iraq war veteran and former medic.
"When I came home, so much had changed for me on a day-to-day basis. I just couldn't communicate the same."
—Tim Read Tim's story.
One Man's Story:
Ron is a Vietnam veteran who has had PTSD symptoms for decades.
"Whenever I was under extreme stress, it would come back and slam me."
—Ron Read Ron's story. Symptoms
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be terrifying. They may disrupt your life and make it hard to continue with your daily activities. It may be hard just to get through the day.
PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than 4 weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you may have PTSD.
Even if you always have some symptoms, counseling can help you cope. Your symptoms don't have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships.
Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at the beginning but don't develop PTSD.
There are four types of symptoms:
Reliving the event
Bad memories of the traumatic event can come back at any time. You may feel the same fear and horror you did when the event took place. You may feel like you're going through the event again. This is called a flashback. Sometimes there is a trigger: a sound or sight that causes you to relive the event. Triggers might include:
Hearing a car backfire, which can bring back memories of gunfire and war for a combat veteran. Seeing a car accident, which can remind a crash survivor of his or her own accident. Seeing a news report of a sexual assault, which may bring back memories of assault for a woman who was raped. Avoiding situations that remind you of the event
You may try to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. You may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.
A person who was in an earthquake may avoid watching television shows or movies in which there are earthquakes. A person who was robbed at gunpoint while ordering at a hamburger drive-in may avoid fast-food restaurants. Some people may keep very busy or avoid seeking help. This keeps them from having to think or talk about the event. Feeling bad about yourself or others
You may find it hard to express your feelings. This is another way to avoid memories.
You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships. You may blame yourself for what happened. You may feel guilt, fear, or shame. You may forget about parts of the traumatic event or not be able to talk about them. Feeling keyed up
You may be alert and on the lookout for danger. This is known as increased emotional arousal. It can cause you to:
Suddenly become angry or irritable. Have a hard time sleeping. Have trouble concentrating. Have reckless behavior or to think about hurting yourself. Fear for your safety and always feel on guard. Be very startled when someone surprises you. Other symptoms
Other symptoms also may include:
Physical symptoms for no reason you can think of (called somatic complaints). Difficulty controlling your emotions. Problems with family or friends. Impulsive or self-destructive behavior. Changed beliefs or changed personality traits.
One Man's Story:
"People don't understand the emotion tied to flashbacks. It's like it's happening all over again, and you're having the same physiological reactions."
— Marvin Read more about Marvin. PTSD in children and teens
Children can have PTSD too. They may have the symptoms listed above and/or symptoms that depend on how old they are. As children get older, their symptoms are more like those of adults.
Young children may become upset if their parents are not close by. Or children may have trouble sleeping or suddenly have trouble with toilet training or going to the bathroom. Children who are in the first few years of elementary school (ages 6 to 9) may act out the trauma through play, drawings, or stories. They may complain of physical problems or become more irritable or aggressive. They also may have fears and anxiety that don't seem to be caused by the traumatic event. If you think you or a loved one has symptoms of PTSD, see your doctor right away. Treatment can work, and early treatment may help reduce long-term symptoms. Military Concerns
If you were in the military, you may have seen combat. You may have been on missions that exposed you to horrible and life-threatening experiences. You may have been shot at, seen a buddy shot, or seen death. These are types of events that can lead to
. post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Other things about a combat situation can add more stress to an already stressful situation and may contribute to PTSD and other mental health problems.
These things include what you do in the war, the politics around the war, where it's fought, and the type of enemy you face. footnote 4
Another cause of PTSD in the military can be
military sexual trauma (MST). This is any sexual harassment or sexual assault that occurs while you are in the military. MST can happen to men and women and can occur during peacetime, training, or war. Getting treatment
Many veterans don't seek treatment for PTSD. You may feel that treatment won't help, or worry about what people will think. Your military background may add other pressures that keep you from seeking treatment. You may feel that it will hurt your career, or that those in your unit will lose faith in you. You may fear that your unit will see you as weak.
If you need help deciding to see your doctor, see some reasons why people don't get help and ways to overcome them. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has many programs for veterans and their families who are worried about PTSD or related problems. If you are a veteran, contact your local VA about these resources (http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/where-to-get-help.asp). You can find help with treatment, jobs, housing, and sexual assault.
One Man's Story:
"Being in the Guard now is like a mandatory support group, because they've all been there too."
—Tim Read Tim's story. Tests & Treatments
There are many types of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You and your doctor will discuss the best treatment for you. You may have to try a number of treatments before you find one that works for you.
A type of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy and medicines known as SSRIs appear to be the most effective treatments for PTSD. Treatment can help you feel more in control of your emotions and result in fewer symptoms, but you may still have some bad memories.
Counseling means talking with a therapist on your own or in a group about the traumatic event and PTSD. You will talk with your therapist about your memories and feelings. This will help you change how you think about your trauma. You will learn how to deal with painful feelings and memories, so you can feel better.
There are different types of
counseling for PTSD. Several types of therapy have been shown to be effective in treating PTSD. These therapies are: Cognitive therapy, in which you learn to change thoughts about the trauma that are not true or that cause you stress. Prolonged exposure therapy, in which you talk about the traumatic event over and over, in a safe place, until you have less fear. Cognitive processing therapy, in which you learn to change negative emotions and thoughts related to the trauma. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), in which you focus on hand movements and sounds while talking about the traumatic event.
Finding a therapist you trust is important. A good therapist will listen to your concerns and help you make changes in your life. Your doctor can help you find one. If you are a veteran, the VA is a good place to start. Churches sometimes offer services that help people get counseling. Or you can call your state Health and Welfare office.
SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are a type of
antidepressant medicine. They can help with many PTSD symptoms. They appear to be helpful, and for some people they are very effective. SSRIs include fluoxetine (such as Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
One Man's Story:
"It's hard to let people in on your private thoughts. A professional is a great listener, and if you can let them in, when you talk about your flashbacks, they understand that they're not some random thoughts."
—Marvin, 58 Read more about Marvin. Other types of treatment
Your doctor also may suggest you try other types of medicines and other forms of counseling.
If you are using medicine, take it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if it's not helping your symptoms or if the side effects are very bad. You and your doctor will decide what to do.
Some people who have PTSD may try complementary or alternative treatments to manage their symptoms. These treatments may include acupuncture, meditation, and hypnotherapy. And they may include natural supplements, like ginkgo biloba. These treatments may be helpful for some people with PTSD. But more research is needed.
Talk with your doctor about any complementary health practice that you would like to try or are already using.
Deciding to get treatment
Unfortunately, many people don't seek treatment for PTSD. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But getting treatment is important.
Treatment can make your symptoms less intense and stop them from coming back. It can help you connect with your family, friends, and community. Many people get better with treatment.
If you need help deciding whether to see your doctor,
see some reasons why people don't get help and ways to overcome them.
When you first see your therapist, he or she will ask questions about the traumatic event causing PTSD and how severe your symptoms are. You may want your spouse, your partner, or a close family member to come with you. This person can help your doctor understand your symptoms and can help your therapist understand what you've been going through. Being with someone you trust helps you relax.
If you have other problems along with PTSD, such as overuse of alcohol or drugs, you also may need treatment for those problems.
Recovery from PTSD does not mean forgetting the past trauma. It does mean that you learn how to not have the bad physical and emotional reactions in response to memories so that you can fully live your life. Recovery is not a cure. It helps you believe that you can reach your goals and learn new things to help yourself. It helps you gain self-confidence and respect for yourself.
One Man's Story:
"I'm a much more peaceful person now. I sleep so much better."
—Ron Read Ron's story. Positive coping skills
Coping is about dealing with your symptoms. When you cope with your symptoms in a positive way, you often feel more in control. You accept what the traumatic event did and take steps to improve your life.
Learn about PTSD to better understand how and why it affects you. Relieve stress to relax and feel less anxious. Exercise and be active to reduce how tense you feel. People who are fit usually have less anxiety, depression, and stress than people who aren't active. Get enough sleep to help your mood and make you feel less stressed. Many people with PTSD have trouble sleeping because they feel nervous and anxious or can't stop thinking about the traumatic event. Eat a balanced diet to help your body deal with tension and stress. Whole grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and protein are part of a balanced diet. Find things to do to ease your memories and reactions. Consider channeling your emotions into activities or sports, painting or writing, or a rewarding job. Identify your beliefs to keep you balanced. PTSD can cause a spiritual crisis. You may begin to question your own beliefs and values and ask yourself why war or disasters happen. If this happens to you, talk to a family member, friend, or spiritual adviser. Consider spiritual study, prayer, or meditation. Negative coping skills
Negative coping skills are certain ways you may try to deal with your symptoms and problems that cause more harm than good. These are quick fixes that don't improve your situation in the long run. They include drinking too much, avoiding others, and lashing out.
Support groups and social support
There are times when you may need a shoulder to cry on or a ride to the doctor. You may want to learn more about PTSD or talk with others who have PTSD. You need people who understand what you are going through and will help you and care about you. This is your support network.
Support takes many forms. You can find it in seminars and groups led by professionals, in groups made up of others with PTSD, and in your relationships with family and friends. Emotional Health and Well-Being
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) doesn't always occur alone. Other medical conditions often occur with it, such as:
One Man's Story:
"I didn't know why I needed to drink or wanted to drink. But Vietnam was never very far away when I did."
—Ron Read Ron's story. Family and Community
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can harm your relationships with your family and community. Feelings of anger and depression and not wanting to deal with people can make it hard to connect with them. Pay attention to how you act with your family and try not to pull away. Your relationships can make a big difference in your recovery from PTSD.
Here are things you can do to help yourself, your family, and your community better understand and deal with PTSD.
Know when to get crisis help. Sometimes you need help right away. This may be the case when you have had thoughts about suicide or if anger turns to rage. Help your family. Your family plays an important part in your recovery from PTSD. But you also have to help them. This means: Talking to your family about PTSD and what it does to you. Talking to your kids. Be sure they know they aren't to blame. Talking about your triggers. Triggers are places, sounds, and sights that can cause symptoms. They can be locations, social events, or holidays. Remember that life transitions, even positive ones such as getting married, having a baby, or starting a new job, can cause stress and result in more PTSD symptoms. Keep in mind that your relationship to your community can be changed by PTSD.
Your family and community are part of your recovery. Do as much as you can to work with them. With knowledge, your family and community can better help you.
One Man's Story:
"Talking about it with my wife is getting easier. The more I talk about it with people, the better."
—Tim Read more about Tim. What can others do to help? If you care about someone with PTSD, here's what you can do to help. Learn what you can about PTSD. The more you know, the better you can understand what your loved one is going through. Help your loved one make friends and form a social network. Learn how to deal with anger. Both you and your loved one may be angry at times. Learn the best way to talk with your loved one. Be positive when you can. Don't give advice unless you are asked. Take care of yourself by taking time for yourself and having your own support system.
Some people with PTSD are also depressed. For information on how to help with this, see:
Your family and community are part of your recovery. Do as much as you can to work with them. With this knowledge, your family and community can better help you.
References Citations Cahill SP, et al. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for adults. In EB Foa et al., eds., Effective Treatments for PTSD: Practice Guidelines From the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 2nd ed., pp. 139–222. New York: Guilford Press. Johnson DC, et al. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. In MH Ebert et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 366–377. New York: McGraw-Hill. Department of Veterans Affairs (2017). VA/DoD clinical practice guideline for the management of posttraumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder, version 3.0. Available online: https://www.healthquality.va.gov/guidelines/mh/ptsd/. Accessed December 3, 2018. Wright KM, et al. (2012). Alcohol problems, aggression, and other externalizing behaviors after return from deployment: Understanding the role of combat exposure, internalizing symptoms, and social environment. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(7): 782–800. Davidson J, et al. (2006). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder with venlafaxine extended release. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63(10): 1158–1165. Credits Current as of: October 20, 2022 Author: Healthwise Staff Medical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine Jessica Hamblen PhD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Cahill SP, et al. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for adults. In EB Foa et al., eds.,
Effective Treatments for PTSD: Practice Guidelines From the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 2nd ed., pp. 139–222. New York: Guilford Press.
Johnson DC, et al. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder. In MH Ebert et al., eds.,
Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Psychiatry, 2nd ed., pp. 366–377. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Department of Veterans Affairs (2017). VA/DoD clinical practice guideline for the management of posttraumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder, version 3.0. Available online: https://www.healthquality.va.gov/guidelines/mh/ptsd/. Accessed December 3, 2018.
Wright KM, et al. (2012). Alcohol problems, aggression, and other externalizing behaviors after return from deployment: Understanding the role of combat exposure, internalizing symptoms, and social environment.
Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(7): 782–800.
Davidson J, et al. (2006). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder with venlafaxine extended release.
Archives of General Psychiatry, 63(10): 1158–1165.