Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Many people will relive the traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares that leave them feeling on edge, and some will feel guilt or shame or suffer from insomnia. Many sufferers become isolated.
PTSD affects people differently. Many people will relive the traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares that leave them feeling on edge, and some will feel guilt or shame or suffer from insomnia, and many sufferers become isolated.
Getting effective treatment can be critical in reducing symptoms and improving your ability to function day-to-day.
Your experience of PTSD is unique to you. You may be affected differently to someone else, even when you’ve witnessed or suffered a similar type of trauma. But generally, the specific symptoms of PTSD fall into the following categories:
To explain the impact your symptoms are having on you, you might be told that you have mild, moderate or severe PTSD.
Delayed-onset PTSD – or 'Delayed PTSD' describes your symptoms if they emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma
You might be given a diagnosis of 'Complex PTSD' if you have experienced multiple traumatic events over a longer period of time throughout your life
If you experience traumatic childbirth and develop PTSD, this is known as 'birth trauma'
If you’re supporting someone close to you who has experienced trauma, and you experience some PTSD symptoms, this is sometimes known as 'secondary trauma'
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a frightening, distressing or stressful event or after a prolonged traumatic experience. The science around why some people get PTSD isn’t clear cut. As with most mental health issues, 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), and the innate features of your personality — often called your ‘temperament’ – together with your body’s physiological response to threats.
Although situations we find traumatic vary from person to person, PTSD is not usually related to upsetting situations such as losing one's job, failing an exam or getting divorced.
Many people with PTSD find it hard to open up to others about what they’re going through. It can, however, really help to confide in someone if you're able to. You don’t have to open up to them about the particular trauma – just telling them how you’re currently feeling may be helpful.
It might be a good idea to seek professional help. Going to a GP for advice can be the first step to getting the help you need. It’s important to give yourself time and to be patient with yourself. Everyone responds to trauma differently and it’s wise to take your recovery at your own pace.
Watching a loved one experiencing PTSD can be particularly distressing for both parties. Here are some ways you can support them while looking after your own mental health.
Allow them to be upset about what has happened and let them talk about their experience at their own pace. It’s important not to be dismissive, and for them not to feel pressured into speaking about the traumatic event. Try not to make assumptions about how they feel, or question why they didn’t do something differently.
It can be difficult to understand why a loved one can’t seem to ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’ if you haven’t experienced PTSD yourself. Instead of putting pressure on them to get better, support them and give them the time they need.
Talking about the different situations that might trigger difficult feelings or flashbacks could help you feel more prepared when flashbacks happen. PTSD is unique to the individual experiencing it. For example, they might find significant dates such as the anniversary of the traumatic experience particularly tricky. Noises, sounds, places or words can all have trigger reminders too.
If you notice a change in your loved one, such as a change in their behaviour, mood or energy levels, you could ask them how they are feeling to encourage them to open up.
If a loved one is experiencing PTSD, you could find that they’re easily startled, often feel on edge, and keep looking out for danger. Avoid overcrowding them and give them the space they need. It might be a good idea to ask their permission before touching them or hugging them.
Supporting someone who is experiencing PTSD can be difficult and it’s vital that you look after your mental wellbeing too. Your GP or local IAPT service will be able to offer you support or provide you with appropriate care.