by Angela Smith, PhD | Clinical Psychologist

Unlike most mental health disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one that develops in direct response to a specific type of event, a trauma. The word trauma is commonly used in a colloquial sense, referring to highly upsetting and life-changing events such as divorce/end of relationship, loss of a job, or loss of a loved one due to a terminal illness. However, in clinical settings, trauma often refers to a specific type of event in which one directly experiences or witnesses first-hand actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. 

About 60% of people will encounter one of these types of traumas in their lifetime, and in the weeks and months immediately following the event, it is common to experience a host of symptoms including heightened anxiety, increased awareness and alertness, increased startle response, and avoidance of people, places, and circumstances that are reminiscent of the event. With time, emotional processing, and the support of family and friends, these responses dissipate—that is, recovery is the most common outcome after a trauma. However, for some, these responses persist for months, even years after the trauma. 

The symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are similar to the natural responses that occur immediately following a traumatic event; however, when they occur for more than one month and cause significant distress or interference in social or occupational functioning, a diagnosis of PTSD may be warranted.

Symptoms of PTSD include: 
  • Re-experiencing the events through memories, nightmares, and flashbacks
  • Avoidance of situations and circumstances that elicit memories or uncomfortable feelings
  • Changes in the way in which one views themselves, others, and the world
  • Increased anger and irritability
  • Lower mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hyper-vigilance (heightened awareness of surroundings)
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Sleep disturbance 
  • About 8% of individuals who experience trauma will develop PTSD; these rates are higher for combat veterans and victims of sexual assault

The good news is that cognitive-behaviorally based treatments for PTSD are quite effective. In particular, time-limited, trauma-focused treatments such as Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) have resulted in significant symptom reduction in both civilian and military populations.