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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Last Updated April 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by a traumatic event or series of events. It affects your mood and physical behavior. People who have PTSD have trouble coping with and recovering from traumatic events. You may have acute, or short-term,PTSD that can last for several months. You may have chronic, or long-term, PTSD that can last for several years.

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?

PTSD can begin right after trauma or later. Symptoms can include:

  • Acting angry or violent
  • Feeling anxious or edgy
  • Having flashbacks, nightmares, bad memories, or hallucinations
  • Being uninterested in daily life
  • Feeling afraid or helpless
  • Feeling numb or detached from others
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Not being able to recall parts of the traumatic event
  • Avoiding people or things that remind you of the event

You may not recognize your symptoms or know what they mean. People who have PTSD often are depressed. Sometimes they try to feel better by using alcohol, drugs, or violent behaviors. This can lead to addiction and abuse.

Children who suffer from PTSD may have varied symptoms. These can include:

  • Acting out or describing scary events, especially at playtime
  • Having extreme temper tantrums, or overly violent behavior
  • Forgetting how to talk or not being able to talk
  • Becoming dependent on adults and not wanting to be left alone.

What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?

PTSD is caused by a traumatic event or series of events. The event(s) may have threatened your safety or your life. You may be at risk for PTSD if you are a:

  • Soldier, veteran, prisoner of war, or victim of war
  • Survivor of rape or domestic violence
  • Survivor of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse or assault
  • Survivor of an unexpected event, such as a terrorist attack or car wreck
  • Survivor of a natural disaster, such as a fire, hurricane, or earthquake
  • Front-line worker, such as a firefighter, police officer, or rescue worker
  • Victim of bullying
  • Person who has a life-threatening illness
  • Person who has anxiety, depression, or a mental disorder
  • Person who has experienced grief, such as the unexpected loss of a loved one.

How is post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose PTSD. Talk to them if you have symptoms or experienced a traumatic event. You must have a range of symptoms for more than a month for it to be PTSD. If your symptoms occur for less than a month, you may have acute stress disorder (ASD).

Can post-traumatic stress disorder be prevented or avoided?

Certain people have a higher risk of getting PTSD. Going through a traumatic event does not guarantee you will have PTSD. Some factors can help prevent or lower your risk of PTSD. These include:

  • Talking to people or seeking support after the event
  • Treating and managing previous or related health conditions, such as anxiety or depression
  • Learning how to cope with trauma, especially if it occurs frequently in your line of work, such as when working as a firefighter

Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment

There are several options for treating and managing your PTSD. These depend on the type and severity you have. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to reduce or relieve symptoms. These include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

Therapy also is a common treatment. Types of therapy include:

  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Relational therapy
  • Play therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Group therapy

A doctor or therapist can teach you techniques to control your PTSD. Getting a service animal, like a dog, can help ease your symptoms as well.

Living with post-traumatic stress disorder

There is no cure for PTSD, but with therapy, you can reduce or eliminate symptoms. This depends on the type and severity you have. PTSD can be managed with ongoing treatment. Without treatment, it can last longer or get worse over time. It also can lead to violence or death. Learning more about PTSD can aid your recovery. Check in your community for help and support groups.

People who have PTSD may have related health conditions, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Personality disorder
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Substance abuse or an addiction

These other conditions need to be treated, as well. People who have PTSD need to be watched for signs of attempted suicide or violence toward others.


Questions to ask your doctor

  • Will my PTSD ever go away?
  • What medicines treat PTSD, and do they need to be taken long-term?
  • What type of therapy is best for me?
  • Should I see a psychiatrist or psychologist?
  • Can you recommend a support group for people who have PTSD?
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