Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), occurs in some people after they experience a traumatic event, such as a violent assault, combat or disaster.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by nightmares or vivid flashbacks of the trauma, emotional numbness, and increased anxiety and vigilance. Most people with the disorder begin experiencing PTSD symptoms within three months of the ordeal, and symptoms usually don’t go away without professional treatment. However, it’s possible for PTSD symptoms to develop years after the original trauma. If PTSD is left untreated, it can lead to a number of complications, including depression and substance abuse.
It takes time to recover from trauma. If you’ve been through a difficult ordeal, you may wonder if the feelings you have in the following days, weeks and months are normal or signs of PTSD. It helps to learn about typical PTSD symptoms and understand what PTSD assessment tools doctors use for a diagnosis of PTSD.
PTSD has a number of associated symptoms, including:
- Amnesia or loss of memory about things connected with the event
- Avoidance of activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the trauma
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling jumpy/easily startled
- Feelings of loneliness and alienation
- Flashbacks to the trauma
- Intrusive and upsetting memories of the event
- Irrational feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame
- Physical reactions to reminders of the event, such as pounding heart, sweating and nausea.
Other PTSD symptoms include:
- Feeling emotionally numb and detached from others
- Feelings of betrayal and distrust
PTSD Assessment Tools
PTSD is a very specific disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV), a diagnosis of PTSD is only appropriate if a person meets specific criteria, which must have been present for at least one month.
First, the person must have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, or stressor. The reaction to the event must have involved intense fear or helplessness.
Next, the person must have experienced intrusive memories, flashbacks or nightmares. People with PTSD often feel like they’re reliving the horrific event over and over again. For some people, stimuli that remind them of the trauma may cause psychological distress and physical symptoms of fear and anxiety.
A third criterion for assessment of PTSD involves avoidance or numbing symptoms. According to the DSM-IV, you must have experienced at least three of these symptoms for a diagnosis of PTSD:
- Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, places or people associated with the trauma, or that remind you of the trauma
- Diminished interest in once-enjoyed activities
- Feelings of detachment from others
- Restricted emotions
- Select memory loss associated with the ordeal
- Sense of doomed future.
A person with PTSD also typically displays symptoms of hyper-arousal (a feeling of being constantly on alert). Specifically, a person must display at least two of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty concentrating
After a thorough assessment of PTSD symptoms and a diagnosis of PTSD, treatment can begin. While post-traumatic stress syndrome is a serious condition, it is highly treatable with medications, therapy or a combination of the two.
Smith, M., Segal, R., Segal, J. (2008). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved May 14, 2010, from helpguide.org/mental/post_traumatic_stress_disorder_symptoms_treatment.htm#symptoms.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2009). DSM-IV-TR criteria for PTSD. Retrieved May 14, 2010, from www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/dsm-iv-tr-ptsd.asp.