What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a group of symptoms people might develop after experiencing a potentially traumatic event.

What is a potentially traumatic event?
When a mental health professional is evaluating whether someone has PTSD, they often consider the experience or situation thought to have triggered the symptoms. A traumatic event is different than normal daily stress or pressure. Potential traumas usually involve experiencing or witnessing severe injury, feeling that your life or somebody else’s life is in danger, or witnessing an intentional or accidental death. Events such as natural disasters can also be traumatic.

The kinds of potentially traumatic events that can lead to PTSD are often experienced in person, but not always. For example, some work involves repeated exposure to stories of injury or death – like being a call centre operator for 911 or a crime scene photo developer for a police unit.

Not everybody who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. Indeed, in the North American general population most people (i.e., 50-90%) will experience one or more potentially traumatic events during their lifetime; however, relatively few (i.e., 5-10%) will develop PTSD. Even people who are in careers where exposure to potentially traumatic events may be more common, like public safety personnel, are not necessarily going to develop PTSD. There are responses to potentially traumatic events that can be considered fairly normal. For example, you might feel unsettled or uncomfortable at first, but most people recover and return to normal within a few days; however, some people do go on to have longer-lasting challenges after experiencing a potentially traumatic event.

There are four types of PTSD symptoms a person might experience after being exposed to a potentially traumatic event.

Re-experiencing symptoms
A hallmark symptom of PTSD involves re-experiencing the traumatic event. This may occur in the form of unwanted and upsetting memories of the event, or repeated and distressing nightmares. Some people have more intense re-experiencing events called “flashbacks,” where they might feel like they are actually experiencing the trauma again.

Avoidance symptoms
Avoidance symptoms include a strong urge to stay away from reminders of a potentially traumatic event. These reminders might include people, places, objects, or activities which are related to the trauma in some way. Some people also go out of their way to avoid thinking or talking about the event.

Changes in your thoughts and mood
Potentially traumatic events can change how people think about themselves, other people, and their world. The changes can include feeling hopeless, detached from loved ones, or difficulty experiencing positive emotions – or sometimes any emotions – at all. Such changes might indicate PTSD, especially for people who were ‘positive’ or ‘realistic’ person but have become increasingly ‘negative’ after a potentially traumatic event.

Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Potentially traumatic events can also cause significant distress and physical symptoms. People can become more watchful, on guard, easily startled, or frightened. Difficulties sleeping or trouble concentrating can be caused by diverse stress, up to and including traumatic stress. In addition, potentially traumatic events can cause increased feelings of anger, irritability, shame, or guilt.

Many people can experience some of the above symptoms after a potentially traumatic event; nevertheless, for most people the symptoms fade within a couple weeks.

If someone experiences several of the above symptoms from each of the four groups for longer than a month, and the symptoms are extremely distressing or interfere with work, relationships, or other important areas of life, they may be experiencing PTSD and may benefit from appropriate mental health care.

If you think that you or someone you know might be experiencing these symptoms, click here to take a short, anonymous questionnaire to screen for PTSD.

While PTSD has many negative impacts, there are interventions that can be very effective at treating the symptoms. Click here to learn more about how PTSD can be treated and how you can access resources.

References and further reading