Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem. It often starts after a shocking event. PTSD has also been called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue."
Treatment can help manage the condition.
The exact cause of PTSD is unknown. It is often triggered by an event that causes intense fear, helplessness, or horror. PTSD is known to happen after:
- Physical assault
- A natural disaster such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or fires
- Sexual abuse
- Motor vehicle accidents
- An animal attack
Changes in the brain after injury may be linked to PTSD.
PTSD may be more likely in those with:
- Past traumatic experiences
- Past physical abuse
- Poor coping skills
- Lack of social support
- Existing ongoing stress
- A social environment that produces shame, guilt, blame, or self-hatred
- Alcohol use disorder
- Family history of mental health problems
Symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person. Most people with PTSD have short-term symptoms after an event. Others may have symptoms for months or much longer. Some may not have symptoms until 6 months or more after the event.
PTSD can cause anxiety, which leads to:
- Re-experiencing the event through:
- Dreams or nightmares about it
- Repeated memories or flashbacks
- Scary thoughts
- Avoiding reminders of the event, such as:
- Certain places, people, or situations
- Feelings, thoughts, or memories related to the event
- Reactivity symptoms, such as:
- Sleep problems
- Anger and irritability
- Being very alert
- Being easily startled
- Cognitive and mood symptoms, such as:
- Feeling detached or numb
- Not remembering important details of the trauma
- Problems focusing or paying attention
PTSD may also lead to:
- Substance abuse problems
- Physical symptoms, such as pain, fast breathing or heart rate, and sweating
- Depression or anxiety
- Relationship problems
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. They will also ask about the person's moods and overall wellness. The doctor will make a diagnosis based on the person's symptoms and details.
PTSD can be managed with therapy. The goal is to reduce the effect of PTSD on daily life and relationships. The exact steps will depend on the person's needs. Treatment may be short or long term.
Some treatment options include:
Cognitive-behavior therapy such as:
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)—to understand and change thought patterns.
- Prolonged exposure therapy—talking about the trauma to decrease negative feelings. Should be done with a therapist.
Other treatment may include:
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)—doing special tasks while talking about the trauma with a therapist.
- Stress inoculation therapy (SIT)—using relaxation techniques and coping skills.
- Group meetings—with other survivors of trauma.
- Family therapy—to help with relationships and give family members support.
- Mindfulness meditation—focusing on breathing and present experiences to manage stress.
Medicine can help to manage some symptoms. They may help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia while working through treatment.
For thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 for the US National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Veterans should call 988 and then press "1".
PTSD cannot be prevented.
- Medications for PTSD. National Center for PTSD—US Department of Veterans Affairs website. Available at: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/meds_for_ptsd.asp.
- Meneses E, Kinslow K, et al. Post-traumatic stress disorder in adult and pediatric trauma populations: a literature review. J Surg Res. 2021;259:357-362
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. American Psychiatric Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/topics/ptsd/index.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/posttraumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd.
- Treatment of PTSD. National Center for PTSD—US Department of Veterans Affairs website. Available at: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/index.asp. Accessed January 31, 2021.
- Adrian Preda, MD
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