PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.

People participating in group therapy for PTSD

PTSD Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic incident, but they can also begin years afterward. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within six months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. For some, the condition becomes chronic.

A psychiatrist or psychologist can diagnose PTSD. Symptoms may include:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over; experiencing physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine.

Arousal and reactivity symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Angry outbursts

Arousal symptoms are usually constant, and can cause stress or anger. These symptoms make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating or concentrating.

Cognition and mood symptoms:

  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen after the traumatic event, but are not due to injury or substance use. These symptoms can make the person feel alienated or detached from friends or family members.

It is natural to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a month, seriously affect one’s ability to function, and are not due to substance use, medical illness, or anything except the event itself, they might have PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.

Some factors that increase risk for PTSD include:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas
  • Getting hurt
  • Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
  • Childhood trauma
  • Feeling horror, helplessness or extreme fear
  • Having little or no social support after the event
  • Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury or loss of a job or home
  • Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse

PTSD Treatment

It is important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental health provider. Ongoing problems can include panic disorder, depression, substance abuse and suicidal feelings. For PTSD treatment options and additional information, explore our PTSD treatment program.

(Source: National Institute of Mental Health)