What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

If you are involved in or witness a traumatic event, it is common to experience upsetting, distressing or confusing feelings afterwards. The feelings of distress may not emerge straight away – you may just feel emotionally numb at first. After a while you may develop emotional and physical reactions, such as feeling easily upset or not being able to sleep .

This is understandable, and many people find that these symptoms disappear in a relatively short period of time. But if your problems last for longer than a month, or are very extreme, you may be given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There’s no time limit on distress, and some people may not develop post-traumatic symptoms until many years after the event. Additionally, not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event develops PTSD.

Other terms for PTSD

The diagnosis ‘PTSD’ was first used by veterans of the Vietnam War, but the problem has existed for a lot longer and has had a variety of names, including:

  • shell shock
  • soldier’s heart
  • battle fatigue
  • combat stresspost-traumatic stress
  • syndrome (PTSS)

Today, the term PTSD can be used to describe the psychological problems resulting from any traumatic event

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person, although you may experience some of the following. Reliving aspects of the trauma:

  • vivid flashbacks (feeling that the trauma is happening all over again)
  • intrusive thoughts and images
  • nightmares
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
  • physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling

“I feel like I’m straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere… my heart races and my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.”

Alertness or feeling on edge:

  • panicking when reminded of the trauma
  • being easily upset or angry
  • extreme alertness
  • a lack of or disturbed sleep
  • irritability and aggressive behaviour
  • lack of concentration
  • being easily startled
  • self-destructive behaviour or recklessness.

“I’m always left shaking violently afterwards and drenched in sweat. I feel so ashamed of myself, yet I’m still too scared to look up for fear of what’s there.”

Avoiding feelings or memories:

  • keeping busy
  • avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma
  • repressing memories (being unable to remember aspects of the event)
  • feeling detached, cut off and emotionally numb
  • being unable to express affection
  • using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories.

“I started experiencing symptoms of PTSD after my boyfriend died. I suffered extremely vivid flashbacks that could happen at any time, anywhere, and were deeply distressing… I threw myself into another relationship very quickly to try and avoid how I was feeling, but then also would not express much affection to my new partner.”

You may also develop other mental health problems, such as:

  • severe anxiety
  • a phobia
  • Depression
  • a dissociative disorder
  • suicidal feelings.

“I was also deeply depressed and experiencing huge amounts of anxiety, refusing to go anywhere alone or go near any men that I didn’t know… [I] would lock my bedroom windows and barricade my bedroom door at night.”

(See Mind’s booklets Understanding anxiety and panic attacks, Understanding phobias, Understanding depression, Understanding dissociative disorders and How to cope with suicidal feelings for more information on these problems.)

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