What Is PTSD? The Symptoms, Causes and Treatments You Need to Know About

Dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder can be challenging, but there are resources and relief out there

By Outlier Staff
April 29, 2020

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after a person has experienced a highly traumatic event. Though PTSD is most closely associated with combat veterans and participating in a war, there are several other situations that could result in PTSD, including experiencing or witnessing a crime, natural disaster, serious accident, mass shooting, assault, or terrorist attack. Approximately 3.5 percent of American adults have PTSD, while one in 11 people will be diagnosed with PTSD during their lifetime, and women are twice as likely to have PTSD than men. Here is what you need to know about the signs, symptoms, causes and treatments of PTSD, as well as resources that may help.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

There are a range of signs and symptoms of PTSD. Every case is different, and a person doesn’t necessarily need to experience all the symptoms in order to receive a PTSD diagnosis. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD symptoms typically fall into the following four categories: 

  1. Intrusive thoughts such as repeated, involuntary memories; distressing dreams; or flashbacks of the traumatic event. Flashbacks may be so vivid that people feel they are re-living the traumatic experience or seeing it before their eyes.
  2. Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event may include avoiding people, places, activities, objects and situations that bring on distressing memories. People may try to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event. They may resist talking about what happened or how they feel about it.
  3. Negative thoughts and feelings may include ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame; much less interest in activities previously enjoyed; or feeling detached or estranged from others.
  4. Arousal and reactive symptoms may include being irritable and having angry outbursts; behaving recklessly or in a self-destructive way; being easily startled; or having problems concentrating or sleeping.

In order to get a PTSD diagnosis, some combination of these symptoms are typically present for months, or even years. The symptoms of PTSD typically show up within three months of a traumatic event, but can take much longer than that to impact a person. PTSD can also increase a person’s risk of developing other mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, substance use, eating disorders, and/or suicidal thoughts or actions. 

Causes and risk factors of PTSD

Researchers know that traumatic events in a person’s life are the cause of PTSD. However, doctors do not yet know why some people develop PTSD, while others with the same lived experiences do not. According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is likely caused by a combination of the following factors:

  • Stressful experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through in your life
  • Inherited mental health risks, such as a family history of anxiety and depression
  • Inherited features of your personality — often called your temperament
  • The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress

Additionally, some people are at a higher risk for developing PTSD after living through a traumatic event. According to the Mayo Clinic, these PTSD risk factors include:

  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as childhood abuse
  • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
  • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Having problems with substance misuse, such as excess drinking or drug use
  • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
  • Having blood relatives with mental health problems, including anxiety or depression

Treatments for PTSD

Like anxiety disorders and depression, there is no single treatment for PTSD that works for everyone. Typically, medication, therapy or a combination of both are used to treat PTSD. A variety of medications are used to treat PTSD, including antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, or prazosin. It may take a few attempts before someone with PTSD finds a medication, or combination of medications, that are most effective for treating their symptoms. 

Therapy — also known as talk therapy or psychological counseling — is another important tool for treating PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common and most effective type of therapy for PTSD. As the Mayo Clinic explains: “CBT focuses on teaching you specific skills to improve your symptoms and gradually return to the activities you’ve avoided because of anxiety.” Exposure therapy — when a person is gradually exposed to an object or situation that triggers their anxiety — is a type of CBT and is frequently used to treat anxiety disorders as well as PTSD. Additionally, some people with PTSD have had success with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) — a combination of exposure therapy and a series of guided eye movements that help people process traumatic memories and change how they react to them.

Finally, there are alternative therapies that some people find helpful in treating their PTSD. The idea behind alternative — also referred to as integrative — therapy is to provide relief for a person without experiencing the potential side effects of medication. Examples of alternative treatments and home remedies for PTSD include:

Psychedelic drugs like MDMA (ecstasy) have also been used to treat PTSD, though these substances are not generally legal and must be taken under the supervision of a trained medical professional. Research is still in the early phases for this type of PTSD treatment.

PTSD resources

If you are experiencing the symptoms of PTSD and need help or support, talk to your health care provider about how you’re feeling. There are also a number of resources available if you or someone you know needs help immediately. There are local and national organizations that can provide support in an emergency situation, including:  

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the free 24-hour online chat to connect with counselors and receive mental health support.

Veterans Crisis Line: (Call 800) 273-TALK (8255) and press “1”. This toll-free hotline is available for veterans and their loved ones. You can also send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential, free support and referrals.

PTSD Foundation of America: Veteran Line: (877) 717-PTSD (7873). Providing referrals, information, and helpful resources to veterans and their families, this toll-free hotline is available 24/7.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you’re experiencing domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233  or visit the organization’s website for assistance and resources.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 and you’ll be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit the RAINN website for 24-hour chat support.

The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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