What Is PTSD? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Medically reviewed by: Matteo Bugatti, PhD
Monday, February 14 2022

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was formally identified in 1915, during World War I, when soldiers began reporting changes to their mental and physical health after exposure to the trauma of the battlefield. 

More than 100 years later, we now know that PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event — not just members of the military or those living in war zones or near battlefields. In fact, it’s estimated that PTSD will affect 1 in 11 adults at some point in their life. 

Fortunately, there are several research-based treatments that can help people recover from trauma. Keep reading to explore what we know about PTSD and how to treat it. 

What exactly is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition most typically triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. In some cases, PTSD can also occur after you learn that a traumatic event happened to someone close to you. 

A traumatic event is an event or series of events that cause extreme stress. The CDC says that “traumatic events are marked by a sense of horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death.”

PTSD affects each individual differently. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the event, but sometimes can show up years later. The condition can last for months or years, becoming chronic.

What causes PTSD?

Some causes of PTSD include exposure to: 

  • A severe or sudden health emergency 
  • Abuse of any kind
  • Actual or threatened death
  • Assault (physical or sexual)
  • Natural disasters 
  • Serious accident (like a car accident)
  • Serious injury 
  • Sexual violence
  • Violent conflict
  • War acts 

You usually cannot prepare in advance for a traumatic event. And anyone can experience PTSD stemming from personal or world events. There is even concern that current events — like the pandemic and societal unrest — could be leaving more people vulnerable to PTSD. 

What is a PTSD trigger?

A PTSD trigger causes memories of a traumatic event to rush back into a person's mind. Triggers might be external — such as a place, person, song, or object. They may also be internal — like a thought, dream, or flashback. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

It is common for a person who experiences a traumatic event to have difficulty adjusting to day-to-day life immediately after the event. However, this does not necessarily mean that a person has PTSD. 

For a person to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must last for more than a month and cause significant distress in their daily functioning. 

Because PTSD has many different symptoms, it must be diagnosed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional. However, it is crucial to recognize some of the symptoms if you suspect that you or someone you care about may have PTSD. 


Symptoms of PTSD include:

You can't get thoughts or memories about the trauma out of your head

  • This might include flashbacks and nightmares of the traumatic event, making it difficult to sleep or concentrate 


You avoid places, things, and people that remind you of the trauma

  • This might include feelings of detachment or estrangement, or feeling emotionally numb with a diminished interest in activities and relationships


You change the way you think about yourself and the world because of the trauma

  • This might include an inability to experience positive emotions, or feelings of persistent fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame. It also might include reckless or self-destructive behavior


You are often "on edge" or lose your temper, with mood changes like irritability, or outbursts of aggression

  • This might include becoming hypervigilant or feeling jumpy


You experience a physiological reaction, such as a change in heart rate or perspiration, when exposed to reminders or cues of the trauma

  • In some cases, this might also include an inability to remember key details of the event

Treatment for PTSD

Recognizing that you might need professional help is one of the first steps you can take to manage your symptoms and regain control of your life.

Before beginning any treatment, it's necessary to work with your healthcare provider to get an official diagnosis for PTSD.

Treatment includes components that address the thoughts, feelings, and urges that interfere with your daily functioning. And, most evidence-based treatments for PTSD rely on exposure to the stimuli (or triggers) associated with the trauma.

Treatment options for PTSD might include: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: the primary goal of this talk therapy is to work through your thought processes about life and eliminate negative behavior patterns.
  • Exposure therapy: the main goal of this type of therapy is to confront your fears by exposure to the feared situation in a safe environment.
  • Group therapy and medications can also be used to manage PTSD symptoms. 

On average, treatment for PTSD is effective, and lasts roughly 12 to 16 sessions (3-4 months), though it can vary based on the individual. 

In addition to seeking treatment, there are things you can do to help manage symptoms after exposure to a traumatic event. Keeping a routine, making time for self-care, and seeking support from your friends and family are some healthy ways to cope. You can also remind yourself or your loved one that choosing to seek treatment for PTSD means that you’re one step closer to overcoming trauma and regaining control over your life. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency, do not use this site. Instead, call 911 or use one of these emergency resources.

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