Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, rape or other violent personal assault.
People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories. Specific symptoms can vary in severity.
- Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
- Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
- Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.
- Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping
It is important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, and not everyone who develops PTSD requires psychiatric treatment. For some people, symptoms of PTSD subside or disappear over time. Others get better with the help of family, friends or clergy. But many people with PTSD need professional treatment to recover from psychological distress that can be intense and disabling. It is important to remember that trauma may lead to severe distress, and that distress is not the individual’s fault. PTSD is treatable, and the earlier a person gets treatment, the better the likely outcome.
Therapists and other mental health professionals use various effective (research-proven) methods to help people recover from PTSD. Both talk therapy (psychotherapy) and medication provide effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD. One category of psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapies (CBT), is very effective. Cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and stress inoculation therapy are among the types of CBT used to treat PTSD. While one of these methods may work for some, professionals may provide their patients with a combination of these treatments and remedies.