How Do You Define PTSD?

February 5, 2015 Michele Rosenthal

When I was struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I didn't know how to describe what it felt like to others. How can you possibly express what it feels like to live with anxiety, depression, desperation, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, suffocating memories, terrifying sensations, boiling rage or anger and the slew of other PTSD symptoms?

Rather than describe it I just isolated further and felt more and more alone -- and crazy. I didn't realize then that I wasn't alone in being stuck not knowing how to communicate my experience. I didn't know, at the time, how to define PTSD.

How Survivors Define PTSD

In a recent CNN interview, David Morris, author of the new PTSD book, The Evil Hours, said about PTSD:

It feels like you have this secret that you can't communicate," he told CNN. "You don't know how to. And this is what takes you the rest of your life to figure out -- what is this secret and how do I translate it to the real world.

How do you define PTSD? The definition of PTSD in the DSM just doesn't speak to PTSD survivors. Here are survivor definitions of PTSD.

This is such a terrific assessment of what it means to live -- and be imprisoned by -- the PTSD experience.

While I felt unable to find words during my PTSD recovery, I discovered there are actually many survivors who do find words to express the PTSD secret. When I founded the award-winning Heal My PTSD blog, many survivors starting sending me their descriptions of life with posttraumatic stress disorder. Some excerpts of what they said include:

  • "A "fracture" in the experiece of your life"
  • "The road to Infinity, once you start there is no end and there is no turning back"
  • "Like having a wound that is always open"
  • "All about being STUCK"
  • "Easily overwhelmed by life, often unable to function"
  • "Not being able to differentiate in your mind the past, present and future"
  • "Being frozen and waiting for the sun to rise"
  • "Like trying to claw my way up and out of the deep hole that I have fallen into"

All of these fragments so eloquently use imagery and the sense of motion (or lack thereof) to give those without PTSD a glimpse into our world.

Why Your Voice Matters in Defining PTSD

In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the clinician's Bible for diagnosing mental health issues) first recognized PTSD and named criteria for recognizing it in patients. Since then the definition has been tweaked and further defined and is now based on five elements: re-experiencing, arousal, avoidance, alterations and exposure.

But none of the clinical language is how how we, as survivors, define PTSD. While it may identify the superficial manifestation of symptoms, it doesn't dive beneath the surface to address, name and illuminate the soul wound we all carry.

The clinical perspective and description of PTSD is important in terms of diagnosis. Even more important is that we, as survivors who know what it means to live with PTSD beyond the clinical criteria, develop, share and describe what it's like to live the PSTD lifestyle. We must define PTSD for us.

How would you define PTSD? Share your thoughts with me in the comments....

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Connect with her on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and her blog.

APA Reference
Rosenthal, M. (2015, February 5). How Do You Define PTSD?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 24 from

Author: Michele Rosenthal

Sonya Neal
March, 2 2015 at 6:23 am

November 2014 marked 10 years of living with PTSD. My traumatic event was a gun to the head attack during an early morning run. Having always been active as a child, running was a natural activity carried into adulthood. At the age of 40, with a teenage son and a mortgage, I could not afford a "safe"health club environment, so I had always purchased very good running shoes, joined a local runners club and so, weather permitting, at 0455, would hit the pavement for an early morning run before work. As a nurse, shift change/report was at 0645. I'm not sure which is more traumatic, the freaky nut gunman who pinned me and put a gun to my head that November morning in 2004, or the people currently in my life, even family members, that at times, can seem just as harmful. During the acute phase I sought proper treatment as I was surrounded by healthcare professionals. I'm an LPN (20 years) currently working at a local hospital/trauma center on a very busy PCU (progressive care), an ICU step down unit. I liken the residual effects of my PTSD to the occasional, unsuspecting "sucker-punch" to the gut...painful, breathtaking, panic-stricken with periods of actually feeling the hair on my head stand, sometimes actually experiencing an auditory humm-like vibration in my ears, feeling an unusual "electric"sensation that covers the surface of my body, bringing confusion, mental pain/anguish/sometimes exhaustion, feeling crazy. People are people, others are just people, while still others are really animals that walk on two legs...through my faith in God, morning prayer, research, and lots & lots of reading I've learned to gravitate toward those individuals who are genuine, authentic who emit caring, kindness, support and love (on a good day!) well as sadly, have had to make the decision a time or two to just eliminate, subtract, cutout, divorce, completely sever relationships with those that prove to be less than "safe"and nurturing. I'm no victim. PTSD is bad enough for the person living with it. Some people (those without PTSD) just do not have the capacity, nor the ability to even try to understand the harmful residual effects of a person having to live with PTSD. It's no one's fault. It's called "life"...and that's how is sometimes. Thanks for making this blog available for those of us struggling to understand this
life changing disorder.

Sarah Flynn RCC, MA, MREM
February, 19 2015 at 12:50 pm

I appreciate how you have described the experience of PTSD from the perspective of the person experiencing it rather than using the DSM criteria. For an explanation of a variation on PTSD (which has not made it into the DSM), i.e., complex PTSD, and the common experience of emotional flashbacks which goes along with it, please see my article at the following link: It can be found on my website which is

February, 17 2015 at 1:27 am

I have finished the third chapter of my trauma story it is a good feeling to Have it done. I am not sure why the spirit pushed me to do it but I feel a great sense of peace now. If you have not read the first two chapters go here-…/my-trauma-story…
The third part to the story can be found here-…/part-iii-of-my-…

February, 16 2015 at 10:57 pm

i feel like im at war with myself and my past its like being in a peverse remake of the movies groundhog day and falling down ive told doctors how i feel and all they say is its just depression even after ive told them my past,its like someone has a finger on the rewind button of a remote control showing me constant images of a life gone by,nightmares when asleep connecting everything with past experiences smells sounds sights people tv films music all serving to remind me of terrible times,its not normal for me to be happy its a weird feeling people saying positive things about me i know theyre upto something bad why do i feel like this all the time

February, 14 2015 at 7:15 pm

When I'm having a PTSD "episode", it feels as if I'm suffocating and forget to breathe. Once I consciously become aware of my breathing, I exhale and start pulling out of what I describe as a "tailspin, the descent into hell", then I start to recover so I can resume normal activities. Sometimes it takes days though to recognize what is going on and recovering from it and during these periods of holding my breath, things do not get done, like paying a bill on time, taking a shower, even doing simple housework is all put on hold until the episode is over. The most difficult part of this entire disorder is most of the time there is no warning and no time to prepare, it just grabs , squeezes and holds on until the ride is over. Learning to go with the flow and having this disorder do not go together well - is quite crippling at times and always misunderstood by those who have no clue and can't understand so they discount what is happening as not real and only meant to get attention and sympathy, I wish! However, I wouldn't even wish PTSD on my worst enemy. It has almost ruined my life but staying in therapy for 20+ years has been my greatest accomplishment to understanding and dealing with this disorder. Support and educating oneself is the best tools to have and I would be lost without mine.

February, 11 2015 at 2:12 am

When I was experiencing full-blown PTSD symptoms, I felt as if there was a war going on inside my body, and that my body was being savagely and brutally used by my own chemistry/physiology. I was powerless to do anything, I simply had to wait until the battle was over.

February, 10 2015 at 11:00 am

Just reading those excerpts made me cry, especially, "Easily overwhelmed by life, often unable to function."
Thank you for sharing these words. I feel less alone.

February, 10 2015 at 10:45 am

The analogy I use is a broken transmission. I can't go back, I can't go forward, just stuck with the engine revving.

February, 10 2015 at 10:19 am

So this blog was, not very interesting. Although the post caught my eye as I do experience PTSD symptoms almost everyday. I am a female survivor of domestic violence. I was hoping to get some more insight on PTSD but it still seems to be a mystery to most. I would define PTSD in my own personal experience as a rip in time where you get to experience your trauma all over again. The pain, the hurt, all of it comes flooding in and time stops for that fraction of a second. Then after that comes the humans natural reactions, tears, beating heart, racing thoughts, fight or flight reactions, sweating, sometimes even screaming or yelling. Its the worst feeling because most of all you just want to forget all of it and by re-experiencing I feel it takes away from the healing process of that event. Sometimes even makes it worse. I know people can heal from PTSD and there is hope as I am working with a therapist to express and understand these emotions.

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