What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder experienced in response to a traumatic event. Examples of traumatic events include, among others:

  • Prolonged abuse
  • Physical/sexual assault
  • Natural disaster
  • Witnessing a crime.

Signs & Symptoms

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop a trauma reaction, however a portion will. Below are the common signs and symptoms to look for, although each person responds in their own unique ways there are similarities.

  • The primary reactions people experience are fear and anxiety. Sometimes feeling anxious can be a result of being reminded of the trauma and other times it comes out of the blue. Certain triggers may remind you and activate these fears like times of the day, smells, places, or actions.

  • Following trauma fear and anxiety are experienced in two primary ways: re-experiencing memories, and feeling easily aroused, startled easy or jumpy. Common experiences are flashbacks (visual pictures), nightmares, or having distressing thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

  • You may have difficulty concentrating, following conversations and remembering.

  • Other common reactions are arousal, agitation, feeling jittery, feeling overly alert, trembling, being easily startled and having trouble sleeping.

  • You may find you are avoiding people, places or things that are reminders of the trauma. Avoidance is a protective strategy from things you feel are dangerous and feelings that are overwhelming and distressing.

  • General feelings of sadness and feeling down are common reactions to trauma. These can also include feelings of hopelessness, despair, crying spells, thoughts of hurting yourself, the feeling life it not worth living, and that plans for the future aren’t important anymore.

  • During the trauma, you felt threatened.  You may have felt as if you had no control of your feelings, body or life.  This feeling can be so intense you may feel like you are ‘losing it’.

  • Often feeling of guilt and shame are present. It may be related to something you did or did not do to survive, you may second guess your reactions and blame yourself for things in retrospect.

  • A feeling of anger is also a very common reaction to trauma. It is often associated with a strong sense of unfairness or injustice that you were the victim of a terrible experience.

  • Self-image can suffer as a result of a trauma. You may tell yourself things like “I should have been tougher” or have negative thoughts about yourself.

  • It is not unusual to have disruptions in relationships with other people after a traumatic experience. This is often the result of feeling sad, frightened and angry. In order to cope with negative feelings you may withdraw or you may feel you are not receiving as much support as expected.

  • A loss of interest in physical affection and sexual relations can occur. This is common in people who are feeling depressed or sad. Being emotionally and sexually intimate with someone may be uncomfortable because this experience may bring back feelings of vulnerability, you may have flashbacks or distressing feelings.

  • Recent traumas can remind you of past traumas.  Once a negative experience comes to mind it may provoke memories of other negative experiences.

  • Increased use of alcohol or substances are also common reactions to trauma.

Many of the common reactions to trauma are connected and interact with one another, which can cause the overall response to be more intense.  As you process these experiences during treatment, then symptoms should become less distressing.

Adapted from Foa, Hembree, Rothbaum (2007) Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Emotional Processing of Traumatic Experiences, Therapist Guide. Oxford University Press : New York.)

If you feel like you may be suffering the symptoms of PTSD and would like to talk to a psychologist, contact Brisbane City Psychologists on 1300 751 204 or info@bcpsyc.com.au.