Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms can resemble those of a range of mental health problems, including depression and other anxiety disorders. However, PTSD is a distinct condition, and an accurate PTSD diagnosis is the first step toward treatment and healing.
To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have experienced trauma. Trauma is a subjective term; an event that one person can recover from quickly may be very traumatic to another. According to American Family Physician (2003), up to 30 percent of people who experience significant traumatic events will go on to develop PTSD.
In order to receive a PTSD diagnosis, the trauma you experienced must meet two criteria:
- You saw or experienced an event where you or someone else was threatened with death, serious injury or loss of physical integrity.
- You experienced intense fear, helplessness or horror in response to this event.
Before making a diagnosis of PTSD, doctors must identify symptoms involving avoidance, increased arousal and re-experiencing. These symptoms must last at least a month and have a significant impact on normal activities.
Avoidance symptoms may include:
- Avoiding feelings, people, places, thoughts and situations associated with the trauma
- Difficulty remembering important details of traumatic experience
- Emotional numbing and feeling disconnected from other people
- Feeling that you have a foreshortened future and will have limits in your lifespan, job or relationships.
Increased arousal symptoms include:
- Anger or irritability
- Being jumpy and easily startled
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Feeling constantly watchful and wary, or always “on guard”
- Trouble concentrating.
Re-experiencing symptoms may include:
- Acting or feeling as if the trauma is still happening, including flashbacks or hallucinations
- Intense discomfort and distress when exposed to things that remind you of the trauma
- Intrusive and frequently occurring memories of the trauma
- Physical reactions, such as sweating or increased heart rate, when reminded of the trauma
- Recurring nightmares about the trauma.
When PTSD symptoms last for at least a month, you may have acute PTSD. A chronic PTSD diagnosis is appropriate when symptoms last longer than three months.
An online PTSD checklist or PTSD test may give you an idea as to whether have this disorder. However, seeing a doctor is the only way to get an accurate diagnosis of PTSD.
Diagnosing PTSD: Challenges
Even doctors sometimes have difficulty diagnosing PTSD. Many people with PTSD have other conditions, such as depression or substance abuse, making it more difficult to recognize underlying PTSD. For example, more than 50 percent of men with PTSD also have a problem with alcohol abuse, according to American Family Physician (2003).
Sometimes patients are uncomfortable discussing their trauma because they feel ashamed or guilty, or they may not recognize a connection between an event (such as a childhood trauma) and their current feelings. Trust that you won’t be judged, share all relevant information, and your doctor will be able to make the right diagnosis and help you deal with your PTSD symptoms.
Cohen, H. (2010). Symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD. Retrieved July 2, 2010, from: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/symptoms-and-diagnosis-of-ptsd/.
Grinage, B. M.D. (2003). Diagnosis and management of post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved July 2, 2010, from: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/1215/p2401.html.