Everyone has experiences that are upsetting or hurtful. However, there are times when these experiences are more than just upsetting and possibly harmful. There is a difference between events that are temporarily distressing and those that are traumatic. Trauma is any event that a person perceives as harmful or threatening and has a long-lasting effect on that person’s well-being. According to the National Center for PTSD about 60% of men and 50% of women experience a traumatic event at some point in their life1.
60% of men
50% of women
experience a traumatic event at some point in their life1.
People experience trauma through many sources including, but not limited to, abuse, war, crime, natural disaster, and discrimination. These experiences often cause physical and emotional reactions that can last for years after the event. The effects of trauma can affect a person’s relationships, work, health, and overall outlook on life.
People experience events differently. What might be traumatic for one person might not be for another.
After experiencing a traumatic event, it is normal to feel scared and react in a fear response triggered by the brain’s “flight, fight, or freeze” system. People may find they are jumpier than they were before, or they may find themselves avoiding certain places or people that may remind them of the trauma. Individuals who have experienced trauma may also find it difficult to sleep or concentrate on tasks. For most, the fear responses and symptoms dissipate after a short period of time. People who continue to experience these symptoms to the point that they are affecting their day to day functioning in life may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a disorder that can develop in some people after they experience a trauma. According to the National Center for PTSD approximately 7-8% of people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their life, which is much lower than the number of people who experience trauma1. No one knows exactly what causes some people to develop PTSD when others do not. Some factors that may influence the development of PTSD include:
Typically, symptoms appear within three months of the traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear for months or years. There are four categories of symptoms (explained in more detail below) that are prevalent in those who receive a diagnosis of PTSD: re-experiencing, avoidance, hyperarousal, and a change in mood and thoughts.
Not everyone experiences these the same, but in order for a formal diagnosis of PTSD to be given, all four must be experienced for longer than a month.
Often, when one thinks of trauma or PTSD, thoughts go to military-based combat. Over 14% of military personnel involved in combat operations in Iraq and over 9% of those deployed to Afghanistan reported symptoms of PTSD. For more information about specific services offered to veterans, visit our veteran page.
PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or anxiety. Fortunately, even if trauma has lasting effects, or PTSD is developed, there are ways people can manage the consequences of trauma so they can have fulfilling and meaningful lives. These ways include various forms of treatment such as: specific types of trauma-focused psychotherapy, medication, and group support.
Common Signs and Symptoms of PTSD
In order to receive a diagnosis of PTSD, an individual must experience the following symptoms for at least a month.
- Re-experiencing the traumatic event as if it were happening again in the present moment, called a “flashback.” Vivid nightmares are also a re-experience of trauma.
- Avoidance – such as staying away from any place or event that remind the person of the trauma.
- Hyperarousal – such as having difficulty sleeping or being jumpy or startled very easily.
- Thinking and mood problems – such as memory difficulties or loss of interest in activities.
Young children may experience symptoms differently than adults. Some of the ways they may manifest are:
- Nightmares instead of waking flashbacks
- Wetting the bed when the child has already been toilet trained
- Acting out the traumatic event while playing or drawing it when coloring
- Acting unusually clingy towards caregivers
Those who are living with PTSD or have experienced a trauma may also have to following symptoms:
- Problems with sleep
- Disconnection or withdrawal
- Chronic feelings of being unsafe
- Suicidal thoughts
For additional information about PTSD and trauma, risk factors, and in-depth information on the different kinds of treatment available for PTSD visit:
- US Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD