PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that develops for some people after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, sexual assault or working occupations where you are exposed to aversive details of traumatic events.

Upsetting memories, feeling on edge or have trouble sleeping after this type of event is normal. Initially it may be hard to do normal daily activities, with these things interfering. Most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months.

If it’s been longer than a few months and someone is still having symptoms, they may have PTSD. For some people, PTSD symptoms may start later on, or they may come and go over time.

How many people get PTSD

In Australia, the percentage of people affected by PTSD in previous 12 months 6.4% (1.47 million people). The percentage affected at any time in their life posttraumatic stress disorder 12.2%. 1

What factors affect who develops PTSD?

PTSD can happen to anyone. It is not a sign of weakness. The factors that increase the chance that someone will have PTSD are complex and often not under that person’s control. For example, having a very intense or long-lasting traumatic event or getting injured2, 3 during the event can make it more likely that a person will develop PTSD. Posttraumatic stress disorder is also more prevalent after certain types of trauma, like combat and sexual assault4.

Personal factors, like previous traumatic exposure, and gender5, can affect whether or not a person will develop PTSD. What happens after the traumatic event is also important. Stress can make PTSD more likely4, while social support can make it less likely6.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD symptoms may start soon after a traumatic event, or they may not appear until months or years later. They also may come and go over many years. If the symptoms last longer than four weeks, cause the person distress, or interfere with work or home life, it might be PTSD.

There are four types of symptoms of PTSD. Each person experiences symptoms in their own way.

Reliving the event (also called re-experiencing or intrusive symptoms). This could be things like having bad memories or nightmares. Even feeling like they are going through the event again. This is called a flashback.

Avoiding situations, people and places that remind the person of the event. Sometime these things trigger memories of the traumatic event, which may bring on other symptoms. People with PTSD may even avoid talking or thinking about the event.

People suffering from trauma have more negative beliefs and feelings. The way they think about themself and others may change because of the trauma. Increased feelings of guilt or shame can occur. Feeling that the world is dangerous and you can’t trust anyone. Feeling numb, or finding it hard to feel happy, or having no interest in activities they used to enjoy.

Feeling worked up or agitated (also called hyperarousal). People suffering from PTSD often described that they always feel alert and on the lookout for danger. Being worked up may cause trouble with concentration or sleeping. Similarly, hyperarousal can be associated with suddenly getting angry or irritable, startling easily, or acting in impulsive or reckless ways (like spending too much, using drugs and alcohol, or driving recklessly).

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013)7

What other problems do people with PTSD experience?

Clinical Psychologist and Cognitive Processing Therapy trainer Jon Finch provides trauma counselling to help men and women gain an insight into their experiences and recover from PTSD and other issues which can include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Drinking or drug problems
  • Physical symptoms or chronic pain
  • Employment problems
  • Relationship problems

Often treatments for PTSD help with these other problems, because they are often related.

References

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results,2007 (4326.0). Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics

2. Johansen, V. A., Wahl, A. K., Eilertsen, D. E., & Weisaeth, L. (2007). Prevalence and predictors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in physically injured victims of non-domestic violence. A longitudinal study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol, 42(7), 583-593. doi: 10.1007/s00127-007-0205-0

3. Lin, K.-H., Shiao, J., Guo, N.-W., Liao, S.-C., Kuo, C.-Y., Hu, P.-Y., . . . Guo, Y. (2014). Long-Term Psychological Outcome of Workers After Occupational Injury: Prevalence and Risk Factors. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 24(1), 1-10.

4. Simon, R. I. (1999). Chronic posttraumatic stress disorder: A review and checklist of factors influencing prognosis. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 6(6), 304-312. doi: 10.3109/10673229909017208

5. Christiansen, D. M., & Hansen, M. (2015). Accounting for sex differences in PTSD: A multi-variable mediation model. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 6, 1-10. doi: 10.3402/ejpt.v6.26068

6. Koenen, K. C., Stellman, J. M., Stellman, S. D., & Sommer, J. F., Jr. (2003). Risk Factors for Course of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among Vietnam Veterans: A 14-Year Follow-Up of American Legionnaires. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71(6), 980-986. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.71.6.980

7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.