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May 23, 2012

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that can develop following a terrifying event. Often, people with Post-traumatic stress disorder have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. Post-traumatic stress disorder was first brought to public attention by war veterans, but it can result from any number of traumatic incidents. These include violent attacks such as mugging, rape or torture; being kidnapped or held captive; child abuse; serious accidents such as car or train wrecks; and natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. The event that triggers Post-traumatic stress disorder may be something that threatened the person's life or the life of someone close to him or her. Or it could be something witnessed, such as massive death and destruction after a building is bombed or a plane crashes.


Whatever the source of the problem, some people with Post-traumatic stress disorder repeatedly relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day. They may also experience other sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate. They may feel irritable, more aggressive than before, or even violent. Things that remind them of the trauma may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoid certain places or situations that bring back those memories. Anniversaries of the traumatic event are often very difficult.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects about 5.2 million adult Americans. Women are more likely than men to develop Post-traumatic stress disorder. It can occur at any age, including childhood, and there is some evidence that susceptibility to Post-traumatic stress disorder may run in families. The disorder is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more other anxiety disorders. In severe cases, the person may have trouble working or socializing. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was deliberately initiated by a person-such as a rape or kidnapping.

Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic event is happening all over again.

Not every traumatized person gets full-blown Post-traumatic stress disorder, or experiences Post-traumatic stress disorder at all. Post-traumatic stress disorder is diagnosed only if the symptoms last more than a month. In those who do develop Post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the trauma, and the course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, others have symptoms that last much longer. In some cases, the condition may be chronic. Occasionally, the illness doesn't show up until years after the traumatic event.

People with Post-traumatic stress disorder can be helped by medications and carefully targeted psychotherapy.

Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or intrusive images. Anniversaries of the traumatic event are often very difficult.

NIH Publication No. 01-4928

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