Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Full description of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Definition, signs, symptoms, causes of PTSD.

Full description of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Definition, signs, symptoms, and causes of PTSD.

Description of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a severe reaction to an extremely traumatic event. The person can actually experience the event (i.e. be in a plane crash) or be a witness to the event (i.e. rescue worker at a plane crash).

Over time and with psychological help, some people learn to cope with the aftermath of the event. However, for others, symptoms such as flashbacks and depression can become worse, lasting a long period of time, and seriously disrupting the person's life.

Sometimes symptoms do not begin until many months or even years after the traumatic event took place. If posttraumatic stress disorder has been present for 3 months or longer, it is considered chronic.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder which can affect both children and adults. About 7% of the population will develop PTSD in their lifetime; 5 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during any given year.

Diagnostic Criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The person has been exposed to a traumatic event in which both of the following were present:

  • the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others
  • the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Note: In children, this may be expressed instead by disorganized or agitated behavior

The traumatic event is persistently reexperienced in one (or more) of the following ways:

  • recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. Note: In young children, repetitive play may occur in which themes or aspects of the trauma are expressed.
  • recurrent distressing dreams of the event. Note: In children, there may be frightening dreams without recognizable content.
  • acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience, illusions, hallucinations, and dissociative flashback episodes, including those that occur on awakening or when intoxicated). Note: In young children, trauma-specific reenactment may occur.
  • intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
  • physiological reactivity on exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event

Persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma and numbing of general responsiveness (not present before the trauma), as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

  • efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma
  • efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma
  • inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma
  • markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities
  • feeling of detachment or estrangement from others
  • restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings)
  • sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., does not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span)

Persistent symptoms of increased arousal (not present before the trauma), as indicated by two (or more) of the following:

  • difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • irritability or outbursts of anger
  • difficulty concentrating
  • hypervigilance
  • exaggerated startle response

Duration of the disturbance (symptoms in Criteria B, C, and D) is more than 1 month.

The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Causes of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Living through or seeing something that's upsetting and dangerous, psychological trauma, can cause PTSD. This can include:

  • Being a victim of or seeing violence (kidnapping, torture, sexual abuse)
  • The death or serious illness of a loved one
  • War or combat
  • Car accidents and plane crashes
  • Hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires
  • Violent crimes, like a robbery or shooting.

Studies indicate the amount of dissociation that directly follows a trauma predicts PTSD. Individuals who are more likely to dissociate during a traumatic event are considerably more likely to develop chronic PTSD.

There also seems to be a genetic component to posttraumatic stress disorder. PTSD runs in families. And, as with many psychological disorders, a person's temperament, brain chemistry and other environmental factors likely play a role in the development of PTSD. In addition, having an existing psychiatric disorder, a family history of depression, or a poor support system following a traumatic event are all risk factors for PTSD.

For comprehensive information on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), visit the Anxiety-Panic Community.

Sources: 1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 2. Merck Manual, Home Edition for Patients and Caregivers, last revised 2006. 3. NIMH, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, July 2008. 4. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (1998). Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

APA Reference
Writer, H. (2009, January 3). Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 20 from

Last Updated: July 5, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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