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.

Medically reviewed in January 2020

Updated on February 1, 2021

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious and potentially debilitating condition that can affect a person following a traumatic event, such as a war, terrorist attack, injury, diagnosis or the unexpected death of a loved one. Here’s what you need to know about PTSD. 

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 develop PTSD at some point in their lives. 

While anyone has the potential to get PTSD, from combat veterans and police officers to victims of crime and witnesses to accidents, 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 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 people with PTSD face and control their fear. During treatment, PTSD sufferers 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 make better sense of the trauma so they can view the event in a constructive and realistic 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 medicine front, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) lists two approved medications for PTSD: sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil). Both are a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (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.

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