Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after a person has a terrifying experience that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed or may have been a witness to an event that happened to others.
PTSD is best known as it affects war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as an assault, rape, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.
People with PTSD startle easily, become emotionally numb (especially in relations with family and friends), lose interest in things they used to enjoy, and have trouble feeling affectionate. They can be irritable, become more aggressive, or even become violent. They avoid situations that remind them of the original incident, and anniversaries of the incident are often expecially difficult. PTSD symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was deliberately initiated by another person, such as in a mugging or a kidnapping.
Most people with PTSD repeatedly relive the trauma in their thoughts during the day and in nightmares when they sleep. These are called flashbacks. Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, and can be triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a loud noise. A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.
Not every traumatized person develops PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the incident but occasionally emerge years afterward. They must last more than a month to be diagnosed as PTSD. The course of the illness is variable. Some people recover within a few months but others have symptoms that last for years.
PTSD affects over 7 million American adults and can occur at any age, including childhood. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men and there is some evidence that susceptibility to the disorder may run in families. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders. Medication and certain kinds of psychotherapy can usually treat the symptoms of PTSD effectively.