Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): What You Need to Know

Combat veterans aren’t the only people who get PTSD. Anyone who experiences a trauma can be affected. Get the facts.

A man with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms gazes out the window.

Updated on November 18, 2022.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can affect a person following a traumatic event, such as war, a natural disaster, an accident or assault, or the death of a loved one. 

Who PTSD affects

Most people who experience trauma won’t develop PTSD and the long-lasting depression and anxiety that come with it. However, about 7 to 8 percent of people in the United States will have PTSD at some point in their lives. 

Anyone has the potential to get PTSD, from combat veterans and police officers to victims of crime and witnesses to accidents. However, you are more likely to develop PTSD if you: 

  • Were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or witness 
  • Were seriously injured during the event 
  • Experienced long-lasting or severe trauma 
  • Believed you or a family member were in danger and felt helpless to do anything about it 
  • Had a severe reaction during the trauma such as crying, shaking, or vomiting 

You are also more likely to develop PTSD if you experienced a previous trauma, have a mental illness, or lack a good support system. 

PTSD symptoms 

Symptoms of PTSD typically occur within three months of the distressing event. In some cases, however, they appear many months or years down the line. Common symptoms of PTSD include: 

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts 
  • Avoiding situations that bring back memories of the event 
  • Feeling emotionally numb, guilt, or worry 
  • Being unable to remember what happened during the event 
  • Having symptoms of depression, such as sadness, difficulty sleeping, and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable 
  • Being anxious, tense, easily startled, and angered 

It’s normal to have some of these symptoms after a scary event, but if they last for more than a month, become severe, or interfere with work or life, you should make an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible to be evaluated. There are treatments that can help. 

PTSD treatment 

Treatment for PTSD usually involves a combination of psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly helpful in treating PTSD and may include: 

  • Exposure therapy, which can help address and manage fear. During treatment, people with PTSD are exposed to the trauma safely using mental imagery, writing, or visiting the place where the trauma occurred. 
  • Cognitive restructuring, which can help a person with PTSD get a more realistic sense of the trauma so they can view the event in a constructive way. 

CBT can also be used to teach coping skills, so that a person with PTSD can learn how to better deal with stress, anxiety, and anger associated with the traumatic experience. 

On the medication front, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two medications for PTSD: sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil). Both are a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). These medicines can help relieve feelings of sadness, worry, and numbness. Other prescription medications may be prescribed to treat certain PTSD symptoms, as well, but there are no over-the-counter medications approved to treat the disorder.

If you or a loved one has PTSD symptoms, seek help as soon as possible. If left untreated, PTSD can cause severe suffering and have dangerous long-term effects.

Article sources open article sources

Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Accessed November 16, 2022.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: PTSD Basics. Accessed November 16, 2022.
NIH: National Institute of Mental Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Last reviewed May 2022.
American Psychological Association. Medications for PTSD. Updated July 31, 2017.

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