Traumatic events—such as an accident, assault, military combat or natural disaster—can have lasting effects on a person’s mental health. While many people will have short term responses to life-threatening events, some will develop longer term symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. The essential feature of PTSD is the development of characteristics symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events.

From the DSM-5

What causes PTSD?

You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. Doctors aren't sure why some people get PTSD. As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:

  • Stressful experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you've gone through in your life
  • Inherited mental health risks, such as a family history of anxiety and depression
  • Inherited features of your personality — often called your temperament
  • The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress

Risk Factors

People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, such as:

    • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
    • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as childhood abuse
    • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
    • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
    • Having problems with substance misuse, such as excess drinking or drug use
    • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
    • Having blood relatives with mental health problems, including anxiety or depression

    How to Recognize PTSD

    Intrusive memories
    Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
    Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
    Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
    Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
    Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
    Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
    Negative changes in thinking and mood
    Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
    Hopelessness about the future
    Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
    Difficulty maintaining close relationships
    Feeling detached from family and friends
    Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
    Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
    Feeling emotionally numb
    Changes in physical and emotional reactions
    Being easily startled or frightened
    Always being on guard for danger
    Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
    Trouble sleeping
    Trouble concentrating
    Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
    Overwhelming guilt or shame

    Know the Facts


    About 6 out of every 100 people (or 6% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About 12 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during a given year. About 8 of every 100 women (or 8%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 men (or 4%).

    An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives and up to 20 percent of these people go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.


    Common Forms of Trauma

    You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. Doctors aren't sure why some people get PTSD. As with most mental health problems, PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:

    • Exposure to war, either combat or civilian 
    • Childhood abuse
    • Threatened or actual sexual violence
    • Threatened or actual physical assault
    • Severe motor vehicle accident 
    • Natural or human-made disasters 

    Treatment Options

    Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. You don't have to try to handle the burdern of PTSD on your own. The primary treatment is psychotherapy, but can also include medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms by:

    • Teaching you skills to address your symptoms
    • Helping you think better about yourself, others and the world
    • Learning ways to cope if any symptoms arise again
    • Treating other problems often related to traumatic experiences, such as depression, anxiety, or misuse of alcohol or drugs


    Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:

    • Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck.
    • Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares. 
    • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them. 


    Several types of medications can help improve symptoms of PTSD:

    • Antidepressants. These medications can help symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and concentration. 
    • Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs can relieve severe anxiety and related problems, generally used only for a short time 
    • Prazosin. While several studies indicated that prazosin (Minipress) may reduce or suppress nightmares in some people with PTSD.

    Lifestyle Changes

    If stress and other problems caused by a traumatic event affect your life, see your doctor or mental health professional. You can also take these actions as you continue with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:

    From the Mayo Clinic

    Follow your treatment plan.

    Although it may take a while to feel benefits from therapy or medications, treatment can be effective, and most people do recover. Remind yourself that it takes time. Following your treatment plan and routinely communicating with your mental health professional will help move you forward.

    Learn about PTSD.

    This knowledge can help you understand what you're feeling, and then you can develop coping strategies to help you respond effectively.

    Take care of yourself.

    Get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, exercise and take time to relax. Try to reduce or avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety.

    Don't self-medicate.

    Turning to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings isn't healthy, even though it may be a tempting way to cope. It can lead to more problems down the road, interfere with effective treatments and prevent real healing.

    Break the cycle.

    When you feel anxious, take a brisk walk or jump into a hobby to re-focus.

    Stay connected.

    Spend time with supportive and caring people — family, friends, faith leaders or others. You don't have to talk about what happened if you don't want to. Just sharing time with loved ones can offer healing and comfort.

    Consider a support group.

    Ask your mental health professional for help finding a support group, or contact veterans' organizations or your community's social services system. Or look for local support groups in an online directory.

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