What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder which you may develop after being involved in, or witnessing, traumatic events. The condition was first recognised in war veterans and has been known by a variety of names, such as 'shell shock'. But it's not only diagnosed in soldiers – a wide range of traumatic experiences can cause PTSD.


When is it diagnosed?

When you go through something you find traumatic it's understandable to experience some symptoms associated with PTSD afterwards, such as feeling numb or having trouble sleeping. This is sometimes described as an 'acute stress reaction'.

Many people find that these symptoms disappear within a few weeks, but if your symptoms last for longer than a month, you might be given a diagnosis of PTSD. Your GP might refer you to a specialist before this if your symptoms are particularly severe.


Are there different types of PTSD?

If you are given a diagnosis of PTSD, you might be told that you have mild, moderate or severe PTSD. This explains what sort of impact your symptoms are having on you currently – it's not a description of how frightening or upsetting your experiences might have been.

PTSD may be described differently in some situations:

Delayed-onset PTSD – if your symptoms emerge more than six months after experiencing trauma, this might be described as 'delayed PTSD' or 'delayed-onset PTSD'.

Complex PTSD – if you experienced trauma at an early age or it lasted for a long time, you might be given a diagnosis of 'complex PTSD'.

Birth trauma – PTSD that develops after a traumatic experience of childbirth is also known as 'birth trauma'.


These are some common signs and symptoms that you might recognise:


Re-living aspects of what happened:

  • vivid flashbacks (feeling like the trauma is happening right now)
  • intrusive thoughts or images
  • nightmares
  • intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
  • physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling

Alertness or feeling on edge:

  • panicking when reminded of the trauma
  • being easily upset or angry
  • extreme alertness, also sometimes called 'hypervigilance'
  • disturbed sleep or a lack of sleep
  • irritability or aggressive behaviour
  • finding it hard to concentrate – including on simple or everyday tasks
  • being jumpy or easily startled
  • self-destructive behaviour or recklessness
  • other symptoms of anxiety

Avoiding feelings or memories:

  • feeling like you have to keep busy
  • avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma
  • being unable to remember details of what happened
  • feeling emotionally numb or cut off from your feelings
  • feeling physically numb or detached from your body
  • being unable to express affection
  • using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories

Difficult beliefs or feelings:

  • feeling like you can't trust anyone
  • feeling like nowhere is safe
  • feeling like nobody understands
  • blaming yourself for what happened
  • overwhelming feelings of anger, sadness, guilt or shame

What causes PTSD?

The situations we find traumatic can vary from person to person. There are many different harmful or life-threatening events that might cause someone to develop PTSD. For example:

  • being involved in a car crash 
  • being violently attacked
  • being raped or sexually assaulted
  • seeing other people hurt or killed (including in the course of your job)
  • being abused, harassed or bullied
  • being kidnapped or held hostage
  • traumatic childbirth, either as a mother or a partner witnessing a traumatic birth
  • extreme violence or war, including military combat
  • surviving a terrorist attack
  • surviving a natural disaster, such as flooding or an earthquake
  • being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition
  • losing someone close to you in particularly upsetting circumstances
  • any event in which you fear for your life.

Are some people more at risk of developing PTSD?

Some factors may make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD, or may make the problems you experience more severe, including:

  • experiencing repeated trauma
  • getting physically hurt or feeling pain
  • having little or no support from friends, family or professionals
  • dealing with extra stress at the same time, such as bereavement or money worries
  • previously experiencing anxiety or depression