Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

A prolonged emotional response to an extreme personal experience

  • Children and elderly people are at increased risk
  • Women are at increased risk
  • Genetics and lifestyle are not significant factors

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when a person is involved in a stressful event that triggers persistent intense emotions for some time afterwards. Experiencing an event in which life and personal safety are perceived to be at risk or simply witnessing a traumatic event is often enough to trigger the disorder. The kind of events that result in PTSD include natural disasters, accidents, and being assaulted.

About 1 in 10 people experiences PTSD. Children, elderly people, and women are more susceptible, as are people who have a history of anxiety or obsessional disorders.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of PTSD occur soon after the event or develop weeks, months, or, rarely, years later. They may include:

  • Involuntary thoughts about and repeated reliving of the experience.

  • Daytime flashbacks of the event.

  • Panic attacks with symptoms such as shortness of breath and fainting.

  • Avoidance of reminders of the event and refusal to discuss it.

  • Sleep disturbance and nightmares.

  • Poor concentration and irritability.

People with PTSD often feel emotionally “numb”, detached from events, and estranged from family and friends. After a while, they may lose interest in their normal everyday activities. Other psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression, may coexist with PTSD. Occasionally, the disorder leads to alcohol or drug abuse.

What might be done?

The doctor will assess the severity of symptoms and ask about the person’s past mental health. Cognitive–behavioural therapy has been found to be helpful, as has EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). Support for the individual and family members is often an important part of treatment. Drugs such as antidepressants may also be used. Although this approach often produces an improvement within about 8 weeks, drugs may need to be taken for at least a year. Often, most of the symptoms of PTSD disappear after a few months of treatment, but some symptoms may persist for years. Once a person has experienced PTSD, there is an increased likelihood of it recurring following another stressful event.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

Back to top