Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Need-to-Know

Photo: Mango

It's estimated that one in 10 people will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lifetime. And the trigger will be different for everyone—it could be an accident or the sudden death of a loved one. In fact, it's thought that 10,000 women a year suffer PTSD following a traumatic childbirth. But while we may know what that four-letter acronym stands for, do you know exactly what PTSD is and how it manifests itself? We've been hearing talk about it more and more, so we called on our resident doctor, Jane Leonard, MD, to reveal all the things you need to know about the disorder.

Keep scrolling to find out about PTSD, from the symptoms to the available treatments.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that develops when a person is involved in or witnesses extremely stressful or traumatic events. It was first recognised in veterans of World War I, and it was initially referred to as “shell shock.” It is a mental health problem that has been historically misunderstood, and unfortunately sufferers have often gone undiagnosed and undertreated from many years.

How does PTSD differ from normal stress?

Stress is a normal part of everyday life, and we all cope with feelings of anxiety in different ways. Distressing life events like divorce, losing loved ones and unemployment all lead to stress. All of these stressors put a strain on our mental health, which can in some cases, develop into depression and anxiety. PTSD is stress of a completely different magnitude. It is a mental health condition that develops when a person is exposed to stress or trauma of a severe or abnormal nature.


The type of events that can cause PTSD include serious road accidents; violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery; prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect; witnessing violent deaths; military combat; being held hostage; terrorist attacks; and natural disasters such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis.

What Are the Symptoms?

There are three key symptoms that are specific to PTSD.

1. Re-Experiencing: This is where the person relives and re-experiences the event which is out of their control. Re-experiencing involves flashbacks; nightmares; repeated distressing images or sensations; and physical sensations like pain, sweating and nausea.

2. Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: Avoidance behaviour involves avoiding certain places and people that remind you of the traumatic experience. Emotional numbness is when a person tries to block their feelings to avoid feeling any emotions at all.  They become isolated and socially withdrawn.

3. Hyperarousal: Hyperarousal is a feeling of constant anxiety and stress, and the inability to relax. Symptoms include difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, irritability and anger.

Is it linked with anxiety and depression?

The classic symptoms of depression and anxiety often co-exist with features of PTSD, hence why PTSD is often misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety. PTSD sufferers frequently have low mood, poor sleep and reduced appetite, as well as the other “biological symptoms” of depression. They may also experience the physical symptoms of anxiety such as nausea, sweating, and a fast heart rate (which can develop into panic attacks). Other problems that can occur along PTSD are self harm; drug and alcohol misuse; phobias; chronic physical symptoms such as headache, nausea and abdominal pain; work-related stress; and relationship breakdown.

What is complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD may be diagnosed in adults or children who have repeatedly experienced traumatic events, such as violence, neglect or abuse. Complex PTSD is thought to be more severe if the traumatic events happened early in life, the trauma was caused by a parent or carer, the person experienced the trauma for a long time, the person was alone during the trauma, and/or there is still contact with the person responsible for the trauma.

How is it treated?

PTSD is mental health problems that can be treated effectively with a variety of both medical and psychological treatments. Sadly, PTSD has such a profound effect on its sufferers that they often give up hope that they can get better. This is not the case. Although treatment does take time, there are treatments out there that can be tailored to each individual’s specific needs giving them the best chance of recovery.

The first step is seeking help. Your GP should be empathetic and supportive, and work with you to find the treatments that will give you the most benefit. Unfortunately this may involve a bit of trial and error, but your patience will pay off once you find the best recipe of treatments for you. Treatment is often a combination of psychological therapy such as traumatic-focused cognitive behavioural therapy and medications such as antidepressants. There are also many charities that can provide excellent support and education, such as Mind.

Next up, five celebrities who have spoken out about mental health.