After a traumatic experience, it’s normal to feel frightened, sad, anxious, and disconnected. But if the upset doesn’t fade and you feel stuck with a constant sense of danger and painful memories, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can leave you feeling powerless and vulnerable so it’s important to realize that you’re not helpless. There are things you can do to alleviate your PTSD symptoms, reduce anxiety and fear, and take back control of your life.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following a traumatic event that threatens your safety or makes you feel helpless. Most people associate PTSD with rape and battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men—but any event (or series of events) that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable. PTSD can affect:
- People who personally experience the traumatic event
- Those who witness the event
- Those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers
- Friends or family members of those who experienced the trauma
Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Natural disasters
- Car or plane crashes
- Terrorist attacks
- Sudden death of a loved one
PTSD symptoms: Everyone is different
PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop in the hours or days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. There are three main types of symptoms:
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event. This may include upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for yourself.
- Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and hyper-vigilance (on constant “red alert”).
Other common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance abuse
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Depression and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Physical aches and pains are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Symptoms of PTSD in Children
In children—especially very young children—the symptoms of PTSD can be different from adults and may include:
- Fear of being separated from parent
- Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)
- Sleep problems and nightmares
- Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated
- New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)
- Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings
- Aches and pains with no apparent cause
- Irritability and aggression