Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that emerges for some people after they have experienced or witnessed a life threatening, adverse or horrifying event. While it is natural to be scared during and immediately after experiencing a traumatic event, and to experience an array of different emotions and responses to traumatic situations (such as the fight or flight response, which is activated in intensely stressful or terrifying conditions), these symptoms usually disappear soon after the event. When these symptoms persist long after the traumatic situation has ended, a person may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder affects different people differently
This disorder can present differently from person to person – for example, one can experience long-term (chronic) or short-term (acute) PTSD. It is important to note that not every person who experiences a trauma will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. The signs and symptoms of PTSD tend to present not longer than three months after the initial trauma situation; however, sometimes the onset of PTSD emerges after a full year. In order for a psychiatrist or psychologist to diagnose someone with this disorder, symptoms should persist for longer than one month. The prognosis changes from person to person – recovery can take six months, but it can also take a lot longer, depending on the situation.
A person who has post-traumatic stress disorder will experience at least one re-experiencing symptom, at least one avoidance symptom, at least two arousal and reactivity symptoms, and at least two cognition and mood symptoms.
- Re-experiencing symptoms
These symptoms comprise flashbacks (described as re-experiencing the traumatic event again and again, complete with somatic responses such as heart palpitations), nightmares and all-consuming, terrifying thoughts. These symptoms can impair every-day functioning, and can be activated words, sounds, environments, objects, smells or memories.
- Avoidance symptoms
These include being unable to recall the traumatic event (repression); experiencing feelings of numbness, depression, anxiety or guilt; becoming disinterested in what one previously liked doing; avoiding locations, events or things that trigger memories of the traumatic situation. Memories of the traumatic situation sometimes activate avoidance symptoms. These disturb a person’s day-to-day living.
- Arousal and reactivity symptoms
These include feelings of restlessness and tension, being unable to sleep, lashing out at others for no reason, and being easily frightened or alarmed. These symptoms do not usually appear suddenly, but are, rather, continuously present. They can make a person feel on edge and stressed, and can interrupt concentration and other regular tasks.
- Cognition and mood symptoms
These comprise viewing oneself in a negative light, being unable to recall details of the traumatic situation, warped feelings of culpability or blame, being disinterested in previously enjoyed passions and hobbies. These types of symptoms must emerge not as a result of head injury or substance abuse, and can begin or be exacerbated once the traumatic situation is over. Furthermore, such symptoms result in feelings of isolation from loved ones.
If a person presents PTSD symptoms that disappear after a few weeks, they experienced acute stress disorder (ASD). It is when these symptoms persist that one can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Often, this disorder is comorbid with depression, anxiety disorders and/or substance abuse. Children can experience PTSD, but the disorder may present differently.