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(PDF) PTSD: The Basics

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that follows a terrifying physical or emotional event.

PTSD was first brought to public attention by war veterans and was called 'shell shock' or 'battle fatigue'. However, it can result from any traumatic event that is witnessed by a person, occurred in a person's life, or happened to a friend or family member of that person. Such events include:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • sexual molestation
  • ritual abuse
  • family violence
  • dating violence
  • kidnapping or abduction
  • serious accidents (e.g., car or train wrecks)
  • natural disasters (e.g., floods or earthquakes)
  • violent attacks (e.g., assault, rape, torture, bullying, being mugged)
  • witnessing acts of violence or destruction (e.g., school violence, September 11th)
  • betrayal, infidelity, adultery
  • abortion [NOTE: The trauma from abortion is controversial, politically and religiously.)

Who is at risk for developing PTSD?

The one-million children who suffer abuse each year as well as those who have had other previous traumatic experiences are more likely than others to develop PTSD. Other risk factors for developing PTSD include:

  • type of trauma
  • severity of the trauma
  • duration of the event
  • recurrence of the event
  • the individual's resiliency and coping skills
  • availability of support from family, friends, and community

What are the symptoms?

PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood. The disorder can be accompanied by depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and/or self-injurious behavior. Symptoms may be mild or severe -- people may become easily irritated or have violent outbursts. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the traumatic event was initiated by a person (i.e., assault) rather than a natural disaster (i.e., flood). Research has found rates of PTSD among adolescents ranging from 6.3% (in a community sample of older adolescents) to 29.6% (in substance-dependent adolescents receiving treatment, ages 15 to 19). And, among the substance-dependent adolescents, 19.2% currently had PTSD. Not every traumatized person gets PTSD. Most people will experience some of the symptoms of PTSD in the days and weeks following the trauma, but the symptoms generally decrease over time and eventually disappear. PTSD is diagnosed only if the any or all of the following symptoms last more than a month:

  • Persistent frightening thoughts and memories of event
  • Flashbacks (images, sounds, smells, or feelings)
  • Avoiding people, places, situations that are associated with event
  • Emotional numbness or detachment
  • Inability to feel affectionate
  • Nightmares
  • Sleep problems
  • Depression
  • Being easily startled
  • Loss of interest in things once enjoyed
  • Irritability
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant worrying, especially about death
  • Regressive behavior (i.e., acting younger than their age)
  • Physical problems (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)

How can the traumatized person be helped?

Being emotionally detached after a trauma is not a healthy response. This emotional distancing stuffs the feelings inside, shuts out those who can give help and support, and puts the individual at greater risk for developing PTSD. Family and friends can give support and comfort by listening to victims talk about their experiences and feelings very soon after the event. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests that children process their emotions and reactions to a trauma within 24 hours to 36 hours following a crisis in order to prevent PTSD.Occasionally, PTSD doesn't show up until months or even years after the traumatic event. Recovery is influenced by early detection, intervention, and mental health treatment (including cognitive-behavioral therapy and group therapy). Parents play a vital role in getting this help and support for their child.

Information provided by the Office on Women's Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.