What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Comprehensive post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) information. Plus learn about PTSD in children and PTSD in the military.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an illness that occurs after a trauma in which there is physical harm or the threat of physical harm. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness: An anxiety disorder. Post-traumatic stress symptoms occur for more than one month and typically develop within three months of the traumatic event, although in some cases there is a greater delay. If post-traumatic stress exists for less than one month, acute stress disorder may be diagnosed.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Like?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be crippling as PTSD symptoms creep into everyday life. A person with PTSD may be feeling fine one moment, and a few minutes later they're suddenly reliving the traumatic event while on the bus on the way to work. This may lead to anxiety symptoms like heart palpitations, sweating and a shortness of breath. By the time the person with PTSD gets to work, their anxiety level may be so high that the slightest noise can make them jump or even scream.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects 7.7 million adult Americans and a significant number of children as well. One study found that 3.7% of adolescent boys and 6.3% of adolescent girls had post-traumatic stress disorder. Women typically experience more trauma than men, particularly owing to sexual assaults, and so the number of women with PTSD is much higher than that of men (PTSD Statistics And Facts).

With help, the prognosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is positive. On average, those who receive treatment for PTSD experience symptoms for 36 months as compared to 64 months for those who do not receive help.1 Treatment can include therapy, medications and PTSD support groups.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Definition

Several criteria must be met in order to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); the post-traumatic stress disorder definition contains six parts.

  1. Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event where there is a physical threat; a response of helplessness and fear
  2. Re-experiencing of the event
  3. Avoidance of anything related to the event; inability to remember parts of the event; detachment from others; reduced visible emotion; sense of a shorted life
  4. Sleep problems; decreased concentration; always searching for possible dangers; anger; exaggerated response when startled
  5. Symptoms lasting more than one month
  6. Impairment of functioning due to symptoms

If you're concerned that you might have post-traumatic stress disorder, take our PTSD test.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Post-traumatic stress may also be experienced by children, although it may be experienced slightly differently. Young children may show post-traumatic stress reactions similar to attachment disorder and are strongly affected by their parent's response to the stress.

Children, age 6-11, are more likely to withdraw or become disruptive. Post-traumatic stress disorder may also cause these children physical pain (such as stomach aches) without any medical cause. Children may also relive the trauma through repetitive play.

Children, age 12-17, have PTSD symptoms similar to adults.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the Military

Post-traumatic stress disorder is common in the military with 30% of those who spend time in a combat zone developing the disorder. Unfortunately, those in the military are less likely than average to get help for PTSD as they feel, mistakenly, that it is a sign of personal weakness. Those in the military also fear a negative impact on their career if they get help for post-traumatic stress disorder. A person does not have to be involved directly in a casualty-related event in order to develop PTSD. For some, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or any training or combat zone activity can be traumatic.

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next: Is PTSD a Mental Illness? PTSD in the DSM-5
~ all articles on ptsd
~ all articles on ptsd and stress disorders

Last Updated: 04 July 2018

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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