Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: key facts
What is PTSD?
Any of us can, without warning, be caught up a traumatic event
that is overwhelming, frightening, life-threatening (to ourselves
or others) and beyond our control. This could be:
- getting a diagnosis of a serious
- having (or seeing) a serious road
- the unexpected injury or violent death of
- being taken hostage or assaulted
- being a prisoner-of-war.
After such an event, most people feel
distressed and can have symptoms for some time. Everyone will react
differently, bit it is common to feel anxious, angry, emotional,
shaky and to have difficulty putting the event out of our mind.
This is called Acute Stress Reaction. Fortunately, this usually
fades over a period of days or weeks.
But sometimes, the acute reaction doesn't go away and
you can develop a more severe condition that we call
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
The condition can also be triggered by less acute, but equally
distressing and longer-lasting traumas, such as ongoing
mistreatment, and physical or sexual abuse in the home.
Does everyone get PTSD after a traumatic experience?
No. Most people get an Acute Stress Reaction which has some
overlap with PTSD symptoms. These usually go way, but not everyone
is so lucky. About 1 in 3 people will find that their symptoms just
carry on and that they can't come to terms with what has happened.
It is as though the process has got stuck.
When does PTSD start?
The symptoms usually start within a few
weeks of the trauma, but they can start up to 6 months later.
What does PTSD feel like?
After the traumatic event you can feel
grief-stricken, depressed, anxious, guilty and angry. In PTSD you
- have flashbacks and
nightmares - you relive the event in your mind, again and
- avoid thinking about it
and feeling upset by keeping busy and avoiding anything or anyone
that reminds you of it
- be ‘on guard’ – you stay
alert all the time, can’t relax, feel anxious and can’t sleep
- get physical symptoms –
aches and pains, diarrhoea, irregular heartbeats, headaches,
feelings of panic and fear, depression
- start drinking too much alcohol or
using drugs (including painkillers).
Getting through PTSD
- Seek help and support - from professionals,
friends and family.
- If possible, try to get back to your usual
- Talk about what happened to someone you
trust and try relaxation exercises.
- Eat regularly, take exercise and spend time
with family and friends.
- The event may have made you avoid something
- perhaps driving or going out. Be aware of this and, if you think
it's possible, try to overcome the fear. This may be difficult and
may need to be done gradually.
- Take care with driving - you are more
likely to have an accident while you feel like this. Speak to your
doctor and keep hopeful.
- Try not to avoid other people.
- Try not to resort to alcohol or street
drugs to help you cope. These will make it more difficult to get
Don't be hard on yourself or expect too much
of yourself. PTSD is not a sign of weakness. The strongest person
can get it.
- Psychotherapy – by
remembering the event, going over it and making sense of it, your
mind can do its normal job of storing the memories away and moving
on to other things.
behavioural therapy (CBT) – helps you to think
differently about your memories, so that they become less
distressing and more manageable. It usually involves relaxation to
help you tolerate the discomfort of recalling the traumatic
- Eye movement desensitisation &
reprocessing (EMDR) - uses eye movements to help the brain
to process flashbacks and to make sense of the traumatic
- Talking with a group of
people who have been through the same or similar traumatic
- Group therapy - this can
help you to feel less alone and isolated.
- Medication - antidepressant tablets can
help, especially if you have become depressed. If you find them
helpful, you should carry on taking them for around 12 months
before slowly tailing them off. If you are so distressed that you
can't sleep or think clearly, you may need sedative medication. But
you should only take this for a short time, 2 weeks or so.
- Body-focused therapies such
as physiotherapy and osteopathy, massage, acupuncture, reflexology,
yoga, meditation and Tai Chi. These can help you to control
your distress, to reduce the feeling of being 'on guard' all
the time, and to focus on your "here and now" experiences rather
than the past..
How do treatments compare?
CBT, EMDR and antidepressants seem to be most helpful. The
evidence for other forms of psychotherapy or counselling is much
weaker. Trauma-focused psychological therapies (CBT and EMDR)
should usually be offered before medication.
How do I know when I've got over
a traumatic experience?
When you can:
- Think about it without becoming distressed
- Not feel constantly under threat
- Not think about it at inappropriate times
How can I help someone who has PTSD?
Remind yourself that they are irritable and
jumpy because they are still reliving the trauma. Give them time to
tell you about what happened.
This is an abridged version of
This leaflet is made available through the
generosity of the Charitable Monies Allocation Committee of the
mental health charity St Andrew's, Northampton.
© November 2012. Due
for review: November 2014. Royal College of
Psychiatrists.You can link to, download, print,
photocopy and distribute this leaflet free of charge. But you must
not change it or repost it on a website.
Charity registration number (England and Wales) 228636 and in
Please note that we are unable to offer advice on individual cases. Please see our
advice on getting help.
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