Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder.
Some people develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event. People affected may feel anxious and highly vigilant, and have intrusive thoughts and memories of the trauma. With treatment, people with PTSD can make a full recovery.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is identified by three main groups of symptoms:
- People who have experienced repeated, deliberate harm such as sexual or physical abuse are more likely to develop PTSD than people who experienced unintentional trauma such as a car accident.
- About 25% of people who are exposed to traumatic events develop PTSD.
- Anyone can develop PTSD at any age. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men.
- About 12% of people living in Australia will experience PTSD in their lifetime.
- Serious car accidents are the leading causes of PTSD in Australia.
- myth: everyone with PTSD has been through a dangerous event
- reality: Not everyone with PTSD has experienced direct trauma. Some people develop PTSD after a family or friend experiences trauma. The death of a loved one can also lead to PTSD.
- myth: time heals all wounds
- reality: PTSD can take years to develop. Childhood trauma may still affect adults, many years after the traumatic event happened. People with PTSD need professional support and care.
- myth: Only soldiers get PTSD
- reality: While war veterans are at a higher risk of PTSD than the general population, PTSD can affect anybody who has been through a traumatic event.
- myth: people with PTSD are weak and need to get over it
- reality: people with PTSD live with a mental illness. They cannot ‘snap out of it’ without treatment. Their behaviour is a function of illness, not weakness.
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 intensely distressing and if left untreated, can last for a long time.
The symptoms of PTSD may interfere with the person’s ability to carry on their everyday life, work and relationships. PTSD is identified by four main groups of symptoms:
- Flashbacks of the traumatic event through intrusive memories or nightmares. As well as strong emotions, there may be physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations or panic attacks.
- Feeling emotionally numb. Some people experience ‘dissociation’ – a feeling of watching from a distance as events unfold.
- Feeling anxious and ‘jumpy’ for no reason.Heightened vigilance can mean the affected person is constantly on the lookout for danger, possibly leading to irritability and a lack of concentration.
- Avoiding reminders of the event– The person deliberately avoids activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event because they bring back painful memories.
If a person has been through a traumatic event and has experienced a combination of the above symptoms for a month or more, then they may be experiencing PTSD.
People with PTSD are at a higher risk of developing other anxiety disorders, substance abuse issues, and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder.
PTSD in children and teens
Young people can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults. In very young children, these symptoms can include:
- Wetting the bed after having learned to use the toilet
- Forgetting how to or being unable to talk
- Acting out the scary event during playtime
- Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult
Older children and teens are more likely to show symptoms similar to those seen in adults. They may also start ‘acting out’ and develop disruptive and destructive behaviours. It’s important for parents and carers to seek help early if they think a young person is developing PTSD.
Most people with PTSD develop the condition after experiencing a traumatic event, like a serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or a natural disaster such as a bushfire or a flood.
People who have a past history of mental illness or trauma, as well as stressful life conditions and a lack of support are more likely to develop PTSD.
It’s important to remember that everyone experiences trauma differently. An event which is traumatising for one person may not be too distressing for another person. Everyone has a different capacity for trauma, which is informed by a combination of risk factors including neurobiology, past experiences and genetics.
‘I was in solitary confinement,’ he says. ‘They used to keep the lights on during the day and night. I never saw the sunlight.’ - Claudio
Seeking help, diagnosis and treatment
Many people experience some of the symptoms of PTSD soon after a traumatic event, but will recover on their own. For this reason, treatment does not usually start until a few weeks after a traumatic experience.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of PTSD more than a few weeks after a traumatic experience, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor or mental health professional.
Getting help early can help speed up recovery. Your doctor or mental health professional may recommend psychological therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy. Medication can also be helpful for a time.
With help, a person can learn to manage their response in unavoidable situations that previously would have triggered a flashback. With appropriate treatment and support people with PTSD are able to recover and get on with their lives.
Self-care for family, friends & carers
Post-traumatic stress disorder can have a big impact on relationships. When a person tries to block out painful memories it can appear that they are irritable or uninterested in others. Help for families and friends to look after themselves as well as the person directly affected is also important.
SANE factsheets provide brief, introductory information about mental health. This SANE factsheet was reviewed by industry professionals, carers and people with lived experience of PTSD.