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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)


Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur after you have experienced a traumatic event. A traumatic event is something frightening, horrific, and terrible that you either witness, hear about, or that happens to you directly. Examples of traumatic events include: combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attack, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents, like a car wreck, natural disasters, like a fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake. During a traumatic event most people feel extremely afraid, horrified, and helpless. It has been estimated that 90% of US adults have experienced at least one kind of trauma during their lifetime. However, the vast majority of these individuals recover naturally and do not develop chronic stress symptoms. In fact, only about 3.5% of the US population is diagnosed with PTSD each year. If, after experiencing a traumatic event, your reactions don't go away over time and they significantly disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.



PTSD symptoms usually begin early, within 3 months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward. Symptoms must last more than a month to be considered PTSD. To be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least 1 month: 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:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating

  • Bad dreams/nightmares

  • Frightening intrusive thoughts of the event

  • intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders

  • Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli.

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience

  • Feeling emotionally numb

  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry

  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past

  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Being easily startled

  • Feeling tense or “on edge”

  • Having difficulty sleeping

  • Having angry outbursts

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviors

Cognition and mood symptoms:

  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event

  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world

  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame

  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

  • Feeling alienated and detached from others


PTSD is treated with psychotherapy, medications, or a combination of the two. Effective psychotherapies emphasize key components, including education about symptoms, teaching skills to help identify the triggers of symptoms, and skills to manage the symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for PTSD. There are different types of CBT, such as cognitive therapy and exposure therapy. One type is Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) where you learn skills to understand how trauma changed your thoughts and feelings. Another type is Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy where you talk about your trauma repeatedly until memories are no longer upsetting. You also go to places that are safe, but that you have been staying away from because they are related to the trauma.

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