What is PTSD and How is It Treated?

June is recognized nationally as PTSD Awareness Month. Many of us have heard of PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) or know someone who has struggled with it. PTSD has also been a subject in many popular books and movies, so you may associate PTSD with war experiences or assume that only veterans struggle with PTSD. The reality is that anyone who has experienced trauma can experience PTSD at any time in their life. Fortunately, help is available to treat PTSD. Let’s take a brief look at PTSD, its causes and symptoms, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated.


What is PTSD?
PTSD is a condition that can occur after someone experiences a trauma. Many of us have experienced or witnessed stressful events that significantly impact our mental and emotional health. Often, the effects of these events come and go fairly quickly. However, some experiences such as abuse, accidents, experiencing or seeing a violent crime, natural disasters, sexual assault, the sudden death of a loved one, terrorism, or war can be so traumatic or life-threatening, that their effects on our mental health last much longer. While many people recover from such events relatively quickly, others may experience the effects of stress or fear months or years after the event and for an extended period of time. In some of these cases, the person may be diagnosed with PTSD.

How Common is PTSD?
Like many mental health challenges, PTSD is not uncommon. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, 7-8% of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Women (10%) are more likely than men (4%) to develop PTSD. In children and teens who have experienced a trauma, it is estimated that 3-15% of girls and 1-6% of boys develop PTSD.1

What are PTSD Symptoms?
Trauma, in general, can cause a variety of symptoms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in order to be considered PTSD, symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with relationships and work and last for more than one month. PTSD symptoms generally fall into the following major categories.2

  • Re-Experiencing Symptoms such as flashbacks of the event, bad dreams, and troubling thoughts
  • Avoidance Symptoms like keeping away from people, places, things, thoughts, or feelings related to the trauma
  • Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms, which could include being easily startled by noises or surprises, trouble concentrating or sleeping, feeling tense, or experiencing angry outbursts
  • Mood Symptoms such as difficulty remembering details about the event, negative thoughts about yourself, the world or people in it, lack of positive thoughts about yourself and others, or loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in children, PTSD symptoms may include3:

  • Reliving the event over and over in thought or in play
  • Nightmares and sleep problems
  • Becoming very upset when something causes memories of the event
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Intense ongoing fear or sadness
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Constantly looking for possible threats, being easily startled
  • Acting helpless, hopeless or withdrawn
  • Denying that the event happened or feeling numb
  • Avoiding places or people associated with the event

Interestingly, symptoms in children can also include restlessness, fidgeting, and difficulty paying attention, so they can sometimes be confused with those of ADHD (attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder). Regardless of the cause, you should talk to a mental health provider if you believe a child in your life is experiencing symptoms of PTSD or ADHD.

How is PTSD Treated?
Generally speaking, PTSD is treated using psychotherapy (talking to a mental health professional), medication, or both psychotherapy and medication combined. You may hear a mental health professional refer to the psychotherapy used for PTSD treatment as “trauma-focused” or “trauma-informed” therapy. This means that the therapy is focused on helping you process the memory of the traumatic event or events and how those memories impact you.

The good news is that, with treatment, many people with PTSD have an improvement in their symptoms and may improve to the point that they no longer have a PTSD diagnosis. In fact, according to the National Center for PTSD, for every 100 people with PTSD who receive a trauma-focused therapy, 53 will no longer have PTSD after about three months. By comparison, for every 100 people with PTSD who do not receive treatment, only 9 will no longer have PTSD after about three months.4

If a mental health practitioner diagnoses you with PTSD they should be able to help you formulate a plan to treat PTSD. Your provider may discuss several different types of psychotherapy and/or medications that are available to help you. Ask your provider to help you understand your options and why you might want to choose one type of therapy or medication over the others. To learn more about therapy and medication options available to treat PTSD, be sure to take some time exploring the National Center for PTSD’s Treatment Decision Aid. This helpful online tool provides easy-to-understand information about various treatment options, both therapy and medication, and guides you through a simple questionnaire to help you determine which type of treatment you may prefer. It also provides some tips on how to talk to a mental health provider to develop a treatment plan for you.

As you gather information to evaluate and choose a therapist or counselor, be sure to ask whether a prospective mental health provider has experience diagnosing and treating PTSD. You may also want to ask about any specialized education or training the provider has related to trauma and/or PTSD treatment and how she/he has been able to help others with PTSD in the past.

Help is Available
If you think you or someone you love may be struggling with the effects of PTSD, please remember that effective treatment is available. Get help from a mental health practitioner who can screen, diagnose, and treat PTSD through therapy and/or medication.