Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

By Jill Kapil, Psy.D.
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August 25, 2022

It’s natural to want to avoid situations that may bring up memories of experiences you would rather forget. Sometimes these feelings linger long after a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, motor vehicle accident, sexual assault, or act of violence. 

They can creep into your daily life and disrupt your personal relationships and work. Symptoms such as avoidance, reactive triggers, and cognitive and mood disorders may be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In this article, we’ll discuss everything about PTSD: what it is, signs and symptoms, causes, complications, treatments, and when to see a medical provider.

What Is PTSD?

Nearly everyone who goes through trauma experiences a range of reactions after the event. Most people recover from these initial symptoms. 

However, for some people, ongoing feelings of stress and fear may plague their daily lives even when they are not in danger. This is often diagnosed as PTSD. 

While PTSD is commonly associated with veterans, anyone who has gone through abuse, trauma, terror, or emotional distress can develop anxiety triggers

These triggers—along with a host of other psychological and behavioral changes—can emerge immediately after an emotionally scarring event or months or years later, and impact your daily life, relationships, and work. 

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Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms may take several years to emerge. 

For medical providers to diagnose PTSD in adults, symptoms must last more than a month and be severe enough to impact a person’s relationships and/or work.

The following are symptoms that reflect PTSD in adults: 

  • At least one intrusion symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

Intrusion symptoms

Intrusion symptoms can stem from thoughts and feelings about the event. 

Certain words, objects, or situations could manifest the following intrusion  symptoms:

  • Flashbacks: reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Frightening or upsetting memories of the event

Avoidance symptoms

After a traumatic event, a person may try to avoid certain situations that trigger reminders of what they have gone through. 

Avoidance symptoms include:

  • Avoiding activities that could result in the event recurring, such as not driving or getting in a car after a car accident
  • Staying away from places, people, or objects that remind an individual of the event
  • Refusing to think or talk about the event

Arousal and reactivity symptoms

Unlike certain triggers that remind a person of an event, arousal or reactivity symptoms are usually constant.

They can make it difficult for a person to do basic tasks such as eating, sleeping, and concentrating and often cause a person to be angry or stressed. 

Arousal symptoms include:

  • Angry outbursts
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Being easily startled by surroundings
  • problems with concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping or anxiety at night

Cognition and mood symptoms

After a traumatic event, cognition and mood symptoms can begin or worsen in an individual, causing them to feel alienated or detached from family and friends. 

These symptoms are not due to personal injury, medical illness, substance use, or any other life circumstances. 

Those with PTSD more often than not have depression and/or anxiety disorders. 

Signs of PTSD pertaining to cognition and mood include:

  • Feelings of guilt, shame, and blame
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Negative beliefs about the world and oneself
  • Apathy toward activities that once brought joy
  • Trouble remembering key details about the traumatic event

Symptoms in children and teens

PTSD symptoms in children and teens differ slightly and can be even more extreme than symptoms in adults. 

Common symptoms in children younger than six years old can include:

  • Bed-wetting 
  • Acting out the traumatic event during playtime
  • Drawing the traumatic event
  • Forgetting how to talk or being unable to talk
  • Being excessively clingy with a parent or other adult

For older children and teens, signs of PTSD can include the sudden development of disrespectful or disruptive behaviors. 

They may indulge in vengeful behaviors or become self-destructive. 

In some cases, older children and teens may harbor guilt about not preventing injury or death.

Causes of PTSD

While in most circumstances PTSD develops from a shocking or painful life experience, not everyone with PTSD has survived a dangerous event. 

It is also possible to develop PTSD from the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one or by witnessing a loved one experience danger or harm. 

Risk factors for PTSD

The following factors makes someone more likely to develop PTSD:

  • Being assigned female at birth
  • History of childhood trauma 
  • Living through dangerous events and traumas
  • Having no to very little social support after the event
  • Having a history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Injury or chronic pain
  • Witnessing another person get hurt or seeing a dead body
  • Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
  • Dealing with extra stress after an event such as loss of a job, income, or home
  • Losing a loved one

Complications of PTSD

Aside from how this disorder can dramatically disrupt your daily life, relationships, and work, if left untreated, PTSD can increase the risk of developing the following mental health problems:

Treatment for PTSD

There is no one simple cure for PTSD; what works for one person may not be the best form of treatment for another person, and it may take a little while to figure out what is best for you. 

Most treatments involve medications and psychotherapy (“talk” therapy). 

The American Psychological Association (APA) categorizes treatments as strongly recommended or conditionally recommended to help provide clinicians with the best interventions for their patients. 

The APA strongly recommends four interventions, all of which are variations of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a treatment that focuses on the relationships among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and changing  the relationship with unhealthy belief patterns

Under the umbrella of CBT are cognitive processing therapy, cognitive therapy, and prolonged exposure. 

The following treatments with conditional recommendation have evidence that supports them leading to good outcomes for those living with PTSD.

  • Brief eclectic psychotherapy: This treatment combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy with a psychodynamic approach to work on changing the emotions of shame and guilt. The relationship between the patient and therapist is emphasized in this form of psychotherapy, 
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy: EMDR combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements to help manage emotions tied to traumatic events. The therapy gets the individual to briefly focus on the memory causing trauma while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements). It has been effective for people with PTSD from car accidents.
  • Narrative exposure therapy: NET helps those with PTSD establish a coherent life narrative in which to contextualize traumatic experiences. It is known for its use in group treatment for refugees.
  • Medications: Sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine, and venlafaxine can help treat PTSD.

When to See a Medical Provider

If symptoms of PTSD last longer than a month, disrupt your daily routine, and impact your relationships, speak with a medical provider. 

A psychiatrist or psychologist can offer a springboard for discussing treatment plans that may suit you. 

However, if PTSD triggers suicidal thoughts:

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Call your mental health provider
  • Call a suicide hotline number such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use its webchat on suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat

How K Health Can Help

Want mental health support? Get connected to care in minutes. K Therapy offers free smart chats, which are dynamic, pre-written conversations designed by experts that cover a number of common mental health topics such as depression, anxiety, stress, relationships, and more. Access them for free by downloading the K Therapy app.

K Health also offers anxiety and depression medication for the right candidates.

Online therapists are also available in select states for individualized care. Connect with a licensed mental health therapist for unlimited asynchronous text-based therapy. Therapists respond Monday through Friday between 9am-5pm, within 24-hours

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the signs of PTSD?
Signs of PTSD range from flashbacks and nightmares to deliberately not partaking in activities and communicating with people who trigger recall of the upsetting events. Cognitive or mood behaviors can also begin or worsen after a traumatic event. An individual may become more agitated, be filled with shame and guilt, have negative or suicidal thoughts, or develop apathy toward things that once brought them joy.
What is PTSD behavior?
People with PTSD usually exhibit behavioral changes that last long after a traumatic event. They may experience intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings and relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares. For many, their feelings lead to becoming detached or estranged from other people.
How do I know if I have PTSD?
It is natural to experience PTSD symptoms after a traumatic event. If these symptoms last longer than a month, a licensed therapist can determine if you have PTSD.
How long does PTSD last?
PTSD can last months and even years if left untreated. It is typically diagnosed as having a specific set of symptoms that impair a person’s daily routine and last longer than a month.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jill Kapil, Psy.D.

Dr. Jill Sorathia Kapil is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in California. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Education from the University of California, Irvine; and received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from CSPP, San Diego (California School of Professional Psychology). Dr. Kapil completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at various College/University Health Centers across California, and has been licensed as a Psychologist since 2016.

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