PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after a traumatic event. Although the symptoms typically fall into distinct categories, the overall experience and intensity varies from person to person.
It’s thought that 1 out of every 11 people will receive a diagnosis of PTSD at some point in their lives.
PTSD can make it difficult to function day to day, affecting your quality of life. However, with treatment, PTSD symptoms can become far more manageable.
Mental health professionals use a handbook called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) to diagnose mental health conditions. The DSM-5-TR groups PTSD symptoms into four categories:
- persistent negative alterations in cognitions and mood
- alterations in arousal and reactivity
You’ll notice that the language used to share stats and other data points is pretty binary, fluctuating between the use of “male” and “female” or “men” and “women.”
Although we typically avoid language like this, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.
Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.
Intrusion-related PTSD symptoms involve memories intruding into your everyday life.
Without trying to remember the traumatic event, you may feel like you’re reexperiencing the event or that you can’t stop thinking about certain details.
Intrusive symptoms may include:
- frequent nightmares about the event
- strong, unwanted, distressing memories of the event cropping up when you’re thinking about seemingly unrelated thoughts
- flashbacks, where you feel like you’re reliving the event
You may find that certain things — an object, a song, a smell — may trigger these symptoms. Sometimes, the trigger isn’t obvious and seems to come out of nowhere.
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This symptom can involve avoiding anything that reminds you of the traumatic event.
You might avoid places, situations, objects, and people who remind you of the event. You might also avoid thoughts and feelings you associate with the event.
While many people with PTSD recognize why they’re avoiding those reminders, not everyone is aware. In some cases, the association might not be obvious.
Hyperarousal-related symptoms include:
- a constant feeling of being anxious or “on edge”
- aggression and irritability
- difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
- difficulty sleeping
- hypervigilance, which is a state of increased alertness that makes you more sensitive to your surroundings
- startling easily and having an excessive response when you’re startled
- self-destructive or risky behavior
PTSD can affect your mood and cognition (that is, how you think).
You may experience:
- difficulty remembering the entire event
- distorted feelings of guilt and self-blame
- feelings of depression
- feelings of hopelessness and despair
- lower self-esteem and self-worth
- panic attacks
- reduced interest in your usual activities
PTSD may exist alongside other mental health conditions, including:
Many people experience trauma and do not go on to develop PTSD. Although therapy can be useful for some, experiencing trauma doesn’t mean you automatically need or will benefit from therapy.
Therapy may be beneficial if your symptoms interfere with your day-to-day functioning or persist for several weeks after the event.
A consultation with a qualified mental health professional can help you determine whether you’d benefit from therapy or other mental health help.
To receive a PTSD diagnosis, a qualified medical professional needs to assess your symptoms.
It’s best to talk with a mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or psychiatric nurse, because they are more familiar with the symptoms of PTSD and other mental health conditions.
Mental health professionals use a variety of tests and questionnaires to evaluate symptoms.
To meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, you must experience the following symptoms for
- at least one intrusion/re-experience symptom
- at least one avoidance symptom
- at least two hyperarousal/reactivity symptoms
- at least two cognition and mood symptoms
You don’t need a PTSD diagnosis to seek therapy and support. It’s possible to find treatment and begin your healing journey without a diagnosis.
However, your health insurance might require you to have a diagnosis before they cover certain mental health treatments.
What causes PTSD?
Being exposed to any traumatic event can cause PTSD, especially an event that involves a real or perceived threat of injury or death.
In other words, the event can include any situation where you feel that you or another person could have died or been injured.
This can include events like:
- abuse or neglect
- car accidents
- bereavement, depending on the circumstances
- life threatening illness
- military combat
- natural disasters
- severe injury
- sexual or physical assault
- traumatic birth
- witnessing violence, suicide, or death
Why do some people develop PTSD and others do not?
It’s not always clear why some people develop PTSD and others do not, but researchers have identified some factors that increase your risk of developing PTSD after experiencing trauma.
After experiencing trauma, you may be more likely to develop PTSD if you:
- have a history of mental health conditions
- don’t receive support from loved ones
- experience further stress around the event
You might be less likely to develop PTSD if you:
- have a support network, which can include loved ones, a counselor, or a support group
- learn positive coping skills, which could be learned through therapy
Genetics may also play a role in whether you develop PTSD, according to a large-scale 2019 study.
In the United States, research suggests that PTSD is more common among people who are Black, Latino, and Native American than among non-Latino white people.
What’s the difference between PTSD and C-PTSD?
A single event can cause PTSD, while complex PTSD (C-PTSD) can occur from repeated trauma, especially ongoing trauma over many months or years.
Childhood trauma often causes C-PTSD, especially child abuse perpetrated by parents or caregivers.
People who have C-PTSD may experience similar symptoms to PTSD. Other C-PTSD symptoms include:
- difficulties regulating emotions
- difficulties maintaining healthy relationships
- frequent dissociation
- feelings of emptiness, numbness, or hopelessness
- low sense of self-worth and self-esteem
- relationship challenges, such as difficulty with trust, avoiding others, or participating in unhealthy dynamics
PTSD is more well researched than C-PTSD. Additionally, C-PTSD may be more difficult to treat. That said, both PTSD and C-PTSD can be treated and managed.
PTSD symptoms are typically grouped into four categories. Not everybody with PTSD will experience the same symptoms in the same way.
Although PTSD can affect your day-to-day life, it’s possible to heal from trauma and manage your symptoms in a healthy way. Finding a therapist with experience in treating PTSD can be a positive first step.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information.