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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of mental health issue that can develop after a traumatic event. A traumatic event is generally something shocking or overwhelming, such as being exposed to injury, death, or violence. Even learning about these types of events can be traumatic for people, especially if they happen to a close family member or friend, or hear extreme details over time.
People affected by PTSD may feel anxious and highly vigilant, and have intrusive thoughts and memories of the trauma. It can be extremely distressing and interfere with day-to-day-life, such as work and relationships.
People with PTSD may also experience other mental health issues, such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and substance use disorders (1).
Feeling strong reactions such as fear, anger or sadness are natural after a traumatic event. For most people, these feelings will pass with time and support from friends and family. For people who develop PTSD, these feelings are intense, distressing and, if left untreated, can last for a long time.
PTSD can take years to develop. Childhood trauma can continue to affect adults many years after the traumatic event happened.
To receive a diagnosis of PTSD after a traumatic event, a person must have experienced the following symptoms for at least one month (2):
Some people also experience dissociation as part of their PTSD – a feeling of being disconnected from reality.
PTSD is caused by traumatic events. Trauma can lead to PTSD in several ways:
It can be hard to predict who might develop PTSD after a traumatic event. People are more likely to develop PTSD if the traumatic event was particularly sudden, intense, shocking or impactful. But this can also vary based upon:
It’s estimated that 2-20% of all people who have experienced traumatic events develop PTSD (4).
In Australia, around 1-2% of adults experience PTSD each year, while approximately 12% experience PTSD in their lifetime (5).
There are strategies people can use to help with symptoms and recovery from PTSD:
If someone is concerned about symptoms of PTSD, it is a great idea to talk to a GP. A GP can support people with information and referral options to support services or mental health professionals.
Ideally, any treatment for PTSD should be trauma-informed – this means it is safe, trustworthy, empowering and collaborative (6).
Often treatment for PTSD involves some form of psychological therapy. Psychological therapies that might be helpful for PTSD include trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), cognitive therapy, eye-movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), and exposure therapy (7).
Therapy should usually first involve creating a safe environment. From this place of safety people can learn skills to manage distress and traumatic memories or flashbacks. Over time, treatment with a therapist might also involve processing unresolved aspects of the trauma
Treatment and therapy can also focus on other parts of a person’s life - building up self-esteem, self-compassion, and focusing on strengths and goals.
Other treatment options include medication, such as antidepressants. Medication can be used in combination with psychological therapies, or may be helpful when other mental health issues are present, such as depressive disorders (7).
The family and friends of someone who has experienced PTSD need care and support too — it’s okay for family and friends to set boundaries, and to prioritise their own physical and mental health.
There are many other people out there who share similar experience, and many services designed to help carers of people with mental health issues. Check out our Guide for Families and Friends for more info.
Effective support and treatment is available, and a person who is experiencing PTSD can live a fulfilling life.
To connect with others who get it, visit our online Forums. They’re safe, anonymous and available 24/7.
This factsheet was last updated in February 2022 by representatives from SANE’s content and clinical governance teams.
Going through a traumatic event is shocking and distressing for anyone. It might be an experience like a road traffic accident. It could be a natural disaster like a bushfire or flood. You may have experienced this event directly, or be strongly affected by seeing it happening to someone else. Whatever the traumatic experience, it can seem like you’ll never get over what happened.
After a trauma, we know that some people experience post-traumatic stress. This can include flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety and hyper-vigilance. What’s less known is that, after a trauma, many people experience post-traumatic growth (PTG) – they feel stronger, have better relationships and appreciate life more than before the trauma.
Mindfulness is a mental and physical technique you can use to focus your awareness on the present moment. Being in the moment helps you acknowledge, accept and cope with painful or intrusive thoughts, feelings and sensations.
A healthy lifestyle is important for everyone. When we look after our physical health, we feel better too – fitter, more relaxed and better able to cope with things. This is especially important when you have a mental illness.