Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, once called shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome, is a serious potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault such as rape, or other life-threatening events. All children, adolescents and adults experience stressful events that can affect them both emotionally and physically.  Their reactions to stress are usually brief, and they recover without further problems.  However, an adult, child or adolescent who experienced a catastrophic event may develop ongoing difficulties with this disorder. Following the trauma, children may initially show agitated or confused behavior.  Individuals may also show intense fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, horror or denial.  Children who experience repeated trauma may develop a kind of emotional numbing to deaden or block the pain and trauma. This is called dissociation.  Children with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder avoid situations or places that remind them of the trauma.

What Are the Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder most often begin within three months of the event. In some cases, however, they do not begin until years later. The severity and duration of the illness vary. Some people recover within six months, while others suffer much longer.
A person with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may also re-experience the traumatic event by:

  • Having upsetting and frightening dreams
  • Acting or feeling like the experience is happening again
  • Having frequent memories of the event, or in young children, play in which some or all of the trauma is repeated over and over
  • Developing repeated physical or emotional symptoms when the person is reminded of the event

Those with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may also show the following symptoms:

  • Losing interest in activities
  • Having problems concentrating
  • Showing irritability or angry outbursts
  • Having problems falling or staying asleep
  • Worry about dying at an early age (in children)
  • Showing increased alertness to the environment
  • Repeating behavior that reminds them of the trauma
  • Showing more sudden and extreme emotional reactions
  • Having physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Acting younger than their age (in children – for example, clingy or whiny behavior, thumb sucking)

People with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder have symptoms for longer than one month and cannot function as well as before the event occurred. The symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may last from several months to many years.  Support from parents, school, and peers is important.

Who Gets Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Everyone reacts to traumatic events differently. Each person is unique in his or her ability to manage fear and stress, and to cope with the threat posed by a traumatic event or situation. For that reason, not everyone who experiences or witnesses a trauma will develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was first brought to the attention of the medical community by war veterans, hence the names shell shock and battle fatigue syndrome. However, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can occur in anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. People who have been abused as children or who have been repeatedly exposed to life-threatening situations are at greater risk for developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Victims of trauma related to physical and sexual assault face the greatest risk for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Women are twice as likely to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as men. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder often occurs with depression, substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders.

How Common Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

About 3.6% of adult Americans, about 5.2 million people, suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder during the course of a year, and an estimated 7.8 million Americans will experience Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at some point in their lives. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can develop at any age, including childhood. Women are more likely to develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder than are men. This may be due to the fact that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, abuse, and rape.

How Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Diagnosed?

If symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder are present, a medical doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the doctor may use various tests to rule out physical illness as the cause of the symptoms. If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for an anxiety disorder. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder on reported symptoms, including any problems with functioning caused by the symptoms. The doctor then determines if the symptoms and degree of dysfunction indicate Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is diagnosed if the person has symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder that last for more than one month.