What Is PTSD?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have been through a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something terrible and scary that you see, hear about, or that happens to you, like:

  • Combat exposure
  • Child sexual or physical abuse
  • Terrorist attack
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Serious accidents, like a car wreck
  • Natural disasters, like a fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake

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ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN W. BECHELLI

During a traumatic 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 around you. Most people have some stress-related reactions after a traumatic event; but, not everyone gets PTSD. If your reactions don’t go away over time and they disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.

How does PTSD develop?

Most people who go through a trauma have some symptoms at the beginning. Only some will develop PTSD over time. It isn’t clear why some people develop PTSD and others don’t.

Whether or not you get PTSD depends on many things:

  • How intense the trauma was or how long it lasted
  • If you were injured or lost someone important to you
  • 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

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What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not appear until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause you great distress, or interfere with your work or home life, you might have PTSD.

There are four types of symptoms of PTSD:

  • Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing symptoms)
    You may have bad memories or nightmares. You even may feel like you’re going through the event again. This is called a flashback.
  • 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
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings
    The way you think about yourself and others may change because of the trauma. You may feel fear, guilt, or shame. Or, you may not be interested in activities you used to enjoy. This is another way to avoid memories.
  • Feeling keyed up (also called hyperarousal)
    You may be jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. Or, you may have trouble concentrating or sleeping. This is known as hyperarousal.

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ILLUSTRATION BY LAUREN W. BECHELLI

What other problems do people with PTSD experience?

People with PTSD may also have other problems. These include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Drinking or drug problems
  • Physical symptoms or chronic pain
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship problems, including divorce

In many cases, treatments for PTSD will also help these other problems, because they are often related. The coping skills you learn in treatment can work for PTSD and these related problems.

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Will I get better?

“Getting better” means different things for different people, and not everyone who gets treatment will be “cured.” Even if you continue to have symptoms, however, treatment can help you cope. Your symptoms don’t have to interfere with your everyday activities, work, and relationships.

Source: VA’s National Center for PTSD

 

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