What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.

Not everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event such as military action or domestic/sexual violence. Sometimes it can be linked to childhood experiences such as abuse neglect or abandonment, or the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. Symptoms usually begin early, within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with relationships or work to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.

Some symptoms of PTSD

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Causes of PTSD

Some factors that increase risk for PTSD include:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas such as military action or an abusive relationship
  • Getting hurt
  • Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body
  • Childhood trauma
  • Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
  • Having little or no social support after the event
  • Dealing with extra stress after the event, such as loss of a loved one, pain and injury, or loss of a job or home
  • Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse

The main treatments for people with PTSD are medications, psychotherapy or both. Everyone is different, and the condition affects people differently so a treatment that works for one person may not work for another. There may also be other issues happening at the same time that need addressing, such as depression, substance abuse, and feeling suicidal.

The focus for psychotherapy is to ground and resource you so that you can find ways to calm and support yourself so that you can move forwards. It has been shown that several key actions help significantly:

  • Seeking out support from other people, such as friends and family
  • Finding a support group
  • Learning to feel good about one’s own actions in the face of danger
  • Having a positive coping strategy, or a way of getting through the bad event and learning from it
  • Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear

The safe relational space created by an experienced therapist can really help to reduce the feelings of shame or mistrust or fear that you experience. Together you can rebuild a sense of trust and develop strategies to manage your symptoms.

You may need to start with a formal assessment and diagnosis. Or maybe you have been diagnosed and are ready to start talking about the issues with a psychotherapist.

Our therapists have a range of skills and specialities – please read each of our profiles to find out more.