Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Tabitha Mishra
Last updated: January 2, 2024

What Does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Mean?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that affects people who have lived through a traumatic event or have undergone a series of traumatic incidents. PTSD causes anxiety, emotional disturbances, and negative thought patterns that can interfere with the normal functions of daily life.

While commonly associated with veterans who have witnessed terrifying events or undergone serious physical harm during combat, PTSD also develops off the battlefield. It is diagnosed in people who have been the victims of physical or sexual assault, suffered from an accident, lived through a natural disaster, dealt with the unexpected death of a loved one, or have been subjected to ongoing abuse.

Because of its prevalence among veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder was previously known as shell shock and battle fatigue syndrome.

Safeopedia Explains Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

While stress is a part of everyday life, stress over a certain threshold can have a significant effect on an individual’s mental health. If severe enough, it can result in post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD can develop in people who have gone through disturbing, distressing, or dangerous events, as well as those who have witnessed them.

About 5.2 million adult Americans suffer from PTSD. It is more likely to affect women and can develop at any age.

Symptoms of PTSD

Individual cases of PTSD can present differently, but the symptoms broadly fall into four categories:

  • Intrusive thoughts: Ruminating on disturbing or upsetting thoughts, vivid flashbacks of the traumatizing event, recurring involuntary memories, distressing dreams
  • Avoidance: Refusing to talk about the traumatizing incident or deliberately avoiding people, places, and situations that remind them of it
  • Altered moods or cognition: Anger, guilt, shame, fear, or a feeling of being alienated from others
  • Reactivity: Irritability, outbursts of rage, reckless behavior, difficulty sleeping or concentrating

While most people suffering from PTSD develop symptoms within three months of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, symptoms will take longer to manifest for some. 

Risk Factors for Developing PTSD

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing the condition include:

  • Previous traumatic experiences
  • Physical harm or seeing others be seriously hurt or killed
  • Feelings of terror or helplessness
  • Lack of emotional support
  • Additional sources of stress (e.g. job loss, divorce, the death of a loved one)
  • A family history of mental illness or substance abuse

Diagnosing PTSD

A complete PTSD diagnosis has two stages.

It starts with a preliminary questionnaire known as a PTSD screen. This screening is conducted by a healthcare provider or mental health professional to determine whether an individual should be given a full PTSD assessment.

The PTSD assessment can vary in duration, thoroughness, and methodology. It can involve:

  • A structured interview (asking questions about the traumatizing event and its aftermath)
  • Written surveys or questionnaires
  • Conversations with a spouse or family member to ask whether they have noticed any changes in behavior
  • Physical assessment (some physical conditions can worsen as a result of intense stress)

Treatment for PTSD

PTSD is most effectively treated by a combination of medication and trauma-focused therapy

The medications are typically selective reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which help manage emotions and stress levels.

Trauma-focused therapy can take different forms, including cognitive processing therapy, eye movement desensitization and processing (EMDR), and prolonged exposure therapy.



Shell Shock

Battle Fatigue Syndrome

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