Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition in which people experience a variety of symptoms following exposure to a traumatic event. These may include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, avoidance, and changes in mood and thinking.
An estimated 6.8% of U.S. adults experience PTSD. Symptoms may include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding reminders of the trauma, startling easily, and having negative thoughts and beliefs.
Causes of PTSD include abuse, violence, natural disasters, accidents, terrorism, illness, or the sudden death of a loved one. There are effective treatments that can help such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
There are a number of factors that can play a role in how people respond to traumatic events. Genetics, for example, can influence how people handle stress during and after a trauma. People may be more likely to develop PTSD if they also have an existing mental health condition, have experienced trauma in the past, face other life stressors, and lack social support.
There are a number of treatments that can help reduce or eliminate PTSD symptoms. Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed to reduce symptoms of PTSD and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety if present. There are also psychotherapy techniques that can help including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR).
One way you can help a loved one with PTSD is to learn about the symptoms and the challenges of living with the condition. Encourage your loved one to seek help from a trained professional. Unaddressed symptoms of PTSD can become more severe over time, so it is important to try and help them find resources to begin the healing process.
If you are unable to work in the field for which you are trained due to your PTSD symptoms, you may qualify for disability benefits. If your condition is due to military service, you may qualify for veteran's benefits. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also requires reasonable accommodations for people who have PTSD and have a record of impairment due to their condition.
A trigger is something that can remind someone of a traumatic experience. PTSD triggers can be internal (feelings or emotions) and external (situations, people, places, or objects). When such triggers are present, people may be reminded of the event or even feel as if they are re-experiencing the trauma all over again.
A psychiatric disorder is a mental illness that significantly affects thinking, behavior, and emotions. These disorders can have a serious impact on your ability to function in your daily life and include conditions such as PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia. While such conditions can lead to impairment, there are treatments that can help people manage their symptoms and improve functioning.
Intrusive memories involve emotionally-linked images or impressions that come to mind involuntarily. For those with PTSD, such memories center on a traumatic event and can be extremely disruptive and distressing. Treatments often focus on helping people more effectively process and restructure these intrusive traumatic memories.
Hyperarousal is a set of symptoms of PTSD that happens when people go into a high state of alert after their trauma. Even when there is no real danger present, people may respond as if they are facing a very real threat. They may startle easily and experience symptoms of irritability, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks, and hypervigilance.
A psychological evaluation is a way to assess a person's mental health. A doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist may use a range of tools such as interviews, questionnaires, observations, and psychological tests to look for signs and symptoms of a mental illness. This can help a doctor determine a diagnosis and an approach to treatment based on the individual’s needs.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves a range of different techniques that are used in the treatment of mental illness and psychological distress. During psychotherapy, a qualified mental health professional helps an individual work to address specific symptoms, change underlying negative thoughts, acquire new insights, process past experiences, and develop new coping skills.
Trauma that is repeated and ongoing, such as child abuse or domestic violence, can lead to a condition known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). In addition to other symptoms of PTSD, people with complex PTSD also have difficulty with emotions, hold negative self perceptions, struggle with relationships, and may feel detached from the trauma.
National Institute of Mental Health. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Updated November 2017.
Fischer EP, Sherman MD, et al. Perspectives of family and veterans on family programs to support reintegration of returning veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychol Serv. 2015 Aug;12(3):187-98. doi:10.1037/ser0000033
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA disability compensation for PTSD. Updated September 22, 2020.
Iyadurai L, Visser RM, Lau-Zhu A, et al. Intrusive memories of trauma: A target for research bridging cognitive science and its clinical application. Clin Psychol Rev. 2019;69:67-82. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2018.08.005