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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

A serious traumatic experience can happen to anyone and more often than not it comes without warning. Something that’s beyond your control, frightening or potentially life-threatening can leave you feeling very distressed, upset and confused.

Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events, but most people will feel emotional, shaky or anxious. For many people this reaction fades within days or weeks. But if it doesn’t go away, it can turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is more severe and long lasting.

What is stress and how can it affect your health?
Dr Martin Baggaley

Details

  • What events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder? What events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder?

    Although they can be quite upsetting, stressful experiences such as divorce, losing your job or failing an exam don’t usually lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. The type of events that can cause PTSD are usually where you feel life is in danger, or you’re at risk of serious injury. These include:

    • being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
    • someone close to you dying suddenly or becoming injured
    • being involved in, or witnessing a serious accident
    • being assaulted (such as being sexually assaulted or abused, or physically attacked)
    • experiencing military combat (war veterans, having lived in a war zone)
    • seeing or being involved in a terrorist attack
    • natural disasters, such as experiencing an earthquake

    You can also experience trauma by witnessing another person in trauma or by hearing about a trauma that a friend or relative has gone through.

    Because everyone is different, some events will severely affect some people, but not others. Around one in three people who experience a traumatic event go on to have post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Symptoms Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

    Most people will be affected by a traumatic event to some degree. The important thing is to recognise when it may be affecting you severely or interfering with your everyday life.

    Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder usually start shortly after the trauma, but in some people they can be delayed for months or even years.

    There are three ‘clusters’ of symptoms associated with PTSD.

    Continuously re-experiencing the trauma

    After a traumatic event, it’s common to ‘re-live’ it over and over. You may have flashbacks – seeing the event happening in your mind – or nightmares. You may get physical sensations such as your heart racing, rapid breathing and sweating. You may smell things that are associated with the event.

    Flashbacks can be triggered by seemingly normal events. For example, a certain smell or a place might cause a flashback.

    Avoidance and numbing

    Reliving an experience again and again can be distressing, so you may try to distract yourself. You may try to keep your mind busy – for instance, by working hard, or being absorbed in a hobby. Steering clear of places or people that remind you of the trauma is also a common sign of post-traumatic stress disorder. Or you may simply feel numb to any pain or feelings you have towards the event.

    Feeling ‘on guard’ all the time

    You might find that you’re constantly on edge or alert a lot of the time. After such a traumatic experience, many people constantly look out for danger and can’t relax. This is known as hypervigilance, and you’ll probably feel anxious, or find it hard to sleep or concentrate on tasks. You may be easily startled, or have angry outbursts for no real reason.

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  • Treating post-traumatic stress disorder Treating post-traumatic stress disorder

    Self-help

    Everyone has a different response to traumatic events, so you may need to give yourself time to recover. Try not to bottle up your feelings. It’s helpful to find someone you trust to talk to. This may include friends, family or perhaps a support group where people have had similar experiences.

    You may find it helpful to find out more facts about post traumatic stress disorder. This may help you to understand and make sense of the confusing feelings and reactions you are getting. Our section below on ‘other helpful websites’ will help you find lots more information.

    Try your best to get back into your usual routine. This will bring some normality and comfort into your life. Make sure you eat well and spend time with people that you trust. Don’t cope by blocking out emotions or anxiety with alcohol or drugs. It will only make things worse in the long term. And try to get regular exercise to help you deal with the symptoms of stress. You may also find it helpful to learn and use some relaxation techniques.

    Therapy and medicines

    If your symptoms are severe, or don’t start to improve after about four weeks, see your GP. There are many treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder and your GP can discuss these with you. They may offer to refer you to a mental health professional with specialist experience in treating people with PTSD.

    Treatments for PTSD include a range of different types of psychological therapy. In some cases your doctor may offer you medicines. Experts aren’t yet sure what works best for PTSD. Your doctor will discuss with you what might be the best option in your circumstances.

    The video below gives some tips on coping with stress in everyday life. You might find this helpful if you have PTSD.

  • Getting support Getting support

    You may find it helpful to contact a support group if you or someone close to you has post-traumatic stress disorder. There are many organisations which provide help and support. See our ‘other helpful websites’ section below for more details.

  • Other helpful websites Other helpful websites

    Sources

    • Post-traumatic stress disorder. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised June 2013
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published April 2013
    • Understanding post-traumatic stress disorder. MIND, 2014. www.mind.org.uk
    • Forneris CA, Gartlehner G, Brownley KA. Interventions to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder: a systematic review. Am J Prev Med 2013; 44(6):635–50. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2013.02.013
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  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2016.
    Peer reviewed by Dr Frances Goodhart, Consultant Clinical Psychologist.
    Next review due September 2019.

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