Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), historically referred to as ‘shell shock’ or ‘battle fatigue syndrome’, is a severe condition that can develop after an individual experiences or witnesses a traumatic or terrifying event that involves serious physical harm or the threat of such harm. PTSD is a lingering consequence of traumatic experiences that elicit intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Traumas leading to PTSD can include sexual or physical assault, unexpected loss of a loved one, accidents, war, or natural disasters. Moreover, not only victims themselves but also their families, emergency personnel, and rescue workers may develop PTSD as a result of the traumatic event.
Typical reactions to traumatic events may involve feelings of shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt. These responses are common, and for most individuals, they gradually subside over time. However, for those affected by PTSD, these feelings persist and intensify, interfering with their ability to resume normal life. PTSD symptoms last for more than a month, causing significant impairment in daily functioning.
What Does PTSD Feel Like?

Symptoms of PTSD typically emerge within three months of the traumatic event, though, in some cases, they may not surface until years later. The severity and duration of the disorder can vary, with some individuals recovering within six months, while others endure it for much longer.
PTSD symptoms are generally classified into four main categories:
  • Reliving: Individuals with PTSD repeatedly experience the traumatic event through intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, and even hallucinations and nightmares. Certain triggers can cause significant distress, such as anniversaries of the event.
  • Avoiding: People with PTSD may avoid people, places, thoughts, or situations that remind them of the trauma. This avoidance may lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends, along with a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Increased Arousal: This category encompasses heightened emotional reactions, difficulties in relating to others and expressing affection, sleep disturbances, irritability, anger outbursts, difficulty concentrating, and being excessively vigilant or easily startled. Physical symptoms may also manifest, including increased blood pressure, heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, nausea, and diarrhea.
  • Negative Cognitions and Mood: Individuals with PTSD may experience negative thoughts and emotions, including self-blame, estrangement, and vivid recollections of the traumatic event.
In young children, PTSD may manifest as delayed development in areas such as toilet training, motor skills, and language.
The intensity of PTSD symptoms may fluctuate depending on general stress levels or exposure to specific reminders of the traumatic event.
PTSD Causes and Risk Factors

The reactions to traumatic events can vary significantly among individuals. Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD, as each person has a unique ability to cope with fear, stress, and trauma. Moreover, the type of support and assistance received from friends, family members, and professionals following the traumatic experience can influence the development and severity of PTSD symptoms.
Although PTSD was initially observed among war veterans, anyone who has undergone a traumatic event can develop the disorder. Individuals who experienced childhood abuse or repeated exposure to life-threatening situations are at heightened risk of developing PTSD. Notably, victims of physical and sexual assault face the highest risk of PTSD.
Several factors can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event, including:
  • History of Other Mental Health Problems: Individuals with pre-existing mental health conditions may be more susceptible to PTSD.
  • Family History of Mental Health Problems: Having blood relatives with mental health issues can contribute to the risk of developing PTSD.
  • History of Substance Abuse: Individuals with a history of alcohol or drug abuse may be more vulnerable to PTSD.
PTSD Prevalence

PTSD affects around 3.5% of adult Americans, approximately 8 million individuals, within a year. Moreover, an estimated 6% of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. The disorder can emerge at any age, including childhood, with a higher prevalence among women. This may be attributed to the fact that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, abuse, and rape.
PTSD Recovery
Recovery from PTSD is an ongoing and gradual process. While symptoms of PTSD rarely disappear completely, treatment can help individuals learn to manage them more effectively. Successful treatment can lead to fewer and less intense symptoms, as well as an enhanced ability to cope with the emotional impact of the trauma.
Ongoing research aims to better understand the factors that contribute to PTSD and develop new and improved treatments for the disorder.

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Mental Health America recognizes the significance of accessible and prompt mental health support for individuals experiencing potential symptoms of mental health conditions. To aid in this effort, MHA offers free mental health screenings. Through awareness, support, and appropriate interventions, we can work together to build a more compassionate and mentally healthy world for everyone.

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