Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone who witnesses or experiences trauma. Knowing how to get tested for PTSD can get you on the road to recovery.
PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur after you’ve witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. It features various symptoms related to re-experiencing the trauma, avoiding reminders, and noticing changes to your mood and cognitive function.
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD. In fact, most people don’t. In some cases, however, trauma overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope with extreme circumstances, leaving it “stuck” in processing what happened.
You might not realize you’re living with PTSD right away. The symptoms can take time to emerge, or they may be subtle at first. Like any other medical condition, tests are available to help aid in the diagnostic process.
You can get tested for PTSD, but tests can’t directly diagnose PTSD. Tests are only there to aid in the diagnostic process.
PTSD tests provide a way to assess your level of risk factors and overall likelihood of developing PTSD. They can offer insight into the severity of symptoms and the circumstances surrounding the traumatic event.
Some PTSD tests come in a structured interview format, while others are self-reported questionnaires. It’s common to complete multiple PTSD tests before you receive a formal diagnosis.
Ultimately, PTSD is diagnosed based on criteria outlined in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). The DSM is a research-based clinical guidebook developed and maintained by an international panel of experts for the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions.
Commonly used PTSD assessment instruments
Numerous PTSD tests have been developed over the years. Most were created to help fill in gaps left by earlier tests or to offer unique insights into PTSD experiences.
Not all available PTSD assessments are considered reliable, however. Some have become obsolete, and others have been disproven in research.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the following are commonly used PTSD tests that are evidence-based and have proven reliability:
- Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-5 (CAPS-5)
- PTSD Symptom Scale Interview (PSS-I and PSS-I-5)
- Treatment-Outcome Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Scale
- Structured Interview for PTSD (SIP or SI-PTSD)
- Structured Clinical Interview; PTSD Module (SCID PTSD Module)
A PTSD assessment usually begins with a discussion with your doctor or a mental health professional. Like during a medical exam, you’ll talk about what you’re experiencing, the circumstances involved, and your main concerns.
If you’ve started your PTSD assessment at your primary doctor’s, you may be asked to complete a brief PTSD screening. These evaluations are designed for use in the primary care setting and are a first step toward more advanced PTSD testing.
Common screening tests include:
- The Primary Care PTSD Screen for DSM-5 (PC-PTSD-5)
- SPAN Self-Report Screen (derived from the Davidson Trauma Scale)
- Short Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Rating Interview (SPRINT)
- Trauma Screening Questionnaire (TSQ)
Screening tools are short format, often with “yes” or “no” questions. If your answers suggest you’ve experienced trauma or have a high likelihood of PTSD, more in-depth self-reporting questionnaires and interview-style tests will confirm the results.
More advanced PTSD tests can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours and are administered by a mental health professional. At this point, you can expect to answer more detailed questions about your symptoms and the traumatic event.
It’s always OK to proceed with testing at your own comfort level. You can ask questions at any time and work through difficult thoughts and emotions with the therapist.
The formal diagnosis of PTSD comes from diagnostic criteria in the DSM. The most current version of the DSM, the DSM-5-TR, defines PTSD as:
- exposure to trauma through direct experience or witnessing
- the presence of one or more intrusive symptoms related to the event, such as:
- recurrent, distressing, uncontrollable memories
- distressing dreams or nightmares
- flashbacks or other dissociative reactions
- intense psychological distress when exposed to reminders of trauma
- physical distress from reminders of trauma
- one or more persistent avoidance tactics associated with the traumatic event, such as:
- avoiding memories, thoughts, or feelings
- avoiding external reminders like people, places, or objects
- two or more negative mood and cognitive effects specific to the event, such as:
- memory loss
- relentless negative self-thoughts
- distorted beliefs, like self-blame
- persistent negative mood state
- diminished interest in activities
- feelings of detachment from others
- inability to express positive emotions
- symptoms of reactivity as indicated by two or more of the following:
- self-destructive, reckless behavior
- poor concentration
- heightened startle response
- sleep disturbances
- symptoms having been present for more than a month
- symptoms causing significant disruption in daily life
- no other conditions or substances being able to account for symptoms
While your primary doctor is technically able to test for PTSD, most people have in-depth evaluations done by mental health professionals.
Mental health professionals are specifically trained to recognize, diagnose, and treat mental health conditions like PTSD.
The following mental health professionals can offer in-depth testing:
- clinical social workers
- licensed professional mental health counselors (like licensed marriage and family therapists and licensed professional counselors)
- psychiatric nurse practitioners
PTSD is treatable. After you’ve received a diagnosis, you’ll work closely with your therapist to create a tailored treatment plan.
Psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” is the cornerstone of PTSD treatment. It lets you work through your thoughts and emotions in a space where you feel safe. While many different frameworks of psychotherapy exist, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most frequently used in PTSD.
Other commonly used trauma therapies include:
Because PTSD symptoms like nightmares and mood disturbances can be extremely challenging, medications can help provide relief while you progress through therapy.
Understanding how PTSD is tested can help you receive treatment as soon as possible after a traumatic experience. PTSD tests can’t diagnose PTSD, but they aid in the diagnostic process and offer insight into your individual experience.
If you’ve received a diagnosis of PTSD, treatment is available. Psychotherapy and medications can help you manage symptoms and process what you’ve been through.