Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

A couple of months ago, a guy who'd been harassing and threatening Jake for a while pulled a gun on him as he was walking home. Luckily, the police arrived and no one was hurt, but soon after that Jake started feeling jittery and easily irritated, he had trouble sleeping and concentrating, and he couldn't stop thinking about it, even when he was trying to do something else. He even had nightmares about it.

The things Jake was going through are normal after a traumatic event. They usually run their course and go away within a few days or weeks. But for Jake and other people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), things are different. When someone has PTSD, the symptoms of stress are intense and last for longer than a month.

What Is PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder is a set of symptoms — feeling jittery, sleeping problems, trouble concentrating — that someone develops after they experience something harmful, terrifying, or upsetting.

Any kind of extreme stress can lead to PTSD. It often develops after a direct experience in which someone is seriously injured or threatened with injury or death. It also can happen to people who witness stressful events or learn about an unexpected or violent death or injury to a family member or close friend.

In some cases, PTSD can develop after repeated or extreme exposure to traumatic events. This can be the case with people such as policemen, firemen, and EMTs.

What Causes PTSD?

When you're in a stressful or dangerous situation, your body responds by producing hormones and chemicals as part of the "fight-or-flight" reaction (so named because that's exactly what the body is preparing itself to do — to either fight off the danger or run from it). Usually, when the danger is over, the body goes back to normal.

But when someone has PTSD, his or her stress response system doesn't switch off as it should.

Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD usually develop within the first month after the trauma, but in some cases don't start until months or even years later. Symptoms can go on for years or they can go away and then come back if another event brings up memories of the trauma. In fact, anniversaries of the event can cause a flood of emotions and unpleasant memories.

Someone with PTSD might have some or all of these symptoms:

Who Gets PTSD?

People of any age — kids, teens, and adults — can develop PTSD. But not everyone who experiences a serious trauma develops it. In fact, most people do not. Many recover from life-threatening traumas without developing PTSD. This ability to cope and bounce back is called resilience.

Researchers have found that certain things can affect people's resilience. Everything from someone's belief in his or her ability to overcome problems to the types of hormones a person's body produces may play a role in coping with extreme stress. Someone who can cope better is more resilient and likely to recover quickly, while someone who is less resilient may be more likely to develop PTSD.

The circumstances of a traumatic event also can affect someone's reaction. National disasters like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or a major hurricane or tornado can make many people feel anxious, even if they weren't directly affected. In some cases, seeing images of those events on TV or the Internet can lead to symptoms much like PTSD.

How Is PTSD Treated?

Usually, PTSD doesn't just go away on its own. Without treatment, symptoms can last for months or years, or they may come and go in waves. Getting treatment and support can make all the difference. Mental health professionals (such as psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors) who specialize in treating anxiety problems often have experience working with people who have PTSD.

Therapy for PTSD involves meeting a therapist and then, at your own pace, gradually talking about what happened. Therapy should feel like a safe environment and should help you learn strategies and skills to help with difficult feelings, such as anxiety, fear, or panic.

Strategies therapists recommend include relaxation techniques that can help adjust your stress response, group therapies, and support groups. In some cases, medications can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, panic, or depression.

Healing From Trauma

Sometimes people with PTSD avoid seeking professional help because they're afraid that talking about what happened will bring back memories or feelings that are too painful, or they might worry that it means they're "crazy."

But getting help is actually the sane and healthy thing to do. A therapist can help someone deal with feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or frustration and discover inner strengths that can make the person feel better.

Talking to a trained professional in a safe environment at your own pace often leads to long-term healing. Working through the memories and worries can help reduce symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks. It also can help people avoid potentially harmful behaviors and emotions, like drug use or extreme anger.

So how do you find the right therapist or counselor for you? The best way is to ask a parent, doctor, or adult you trust for help. People who are close to you know you well and understand your needs. (Having a support system of family and friends can really help in recovering from PTSD.) A doctor or school counselor also might be able to help you find a mental health professional who specializes in anxiety problems. And lots of resources are available to help locate therapists in your area.

PTSD is treatable. In the process of healing from trauma, some people discover strengths they didn't know they had or find a support network they didn't know was there. Others find that treatment helps them develop new insights into life and how to cope with other problems.

Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2014





Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

© 1995-2015 KidsHealth® All rights reserved.
Images provided by iStock, Getty Images, Corbis, Veer, Science Photo Library, Science Source Images, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com





Bookmark and Share

Related Resources
OrganizationAmerican Psychological Association (APA) The APA provides information and education about a variety of mental health issues for people of all ages.
OrganizationAnxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) The ADAA promotes the prevention and cure of anxiety disorders and works to improve the lives of all people who have them.
Web SiteCenter for Mental Health Services (CMHS) CMHS is a federal agency that provides information about mental health to users of mental health services, their families, the general public, policy makers, providers, and the media.
OrganizationNational Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) NIMH offers information about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illnesses, and supports research to help those with mental illness.
Related Articles
Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a natural part of life, and most of us experience it from time to time. But for some people, anxiety can be extreme.
Date Rape About half of people who have been raped know the person who attacked them. This article explains what date rape is, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you've been raped.
About Stressful Situations How well we get through a stressful situation depends a lot on us. It's how we deal with that makes all the difference. Here are some ways to understand and manage stress.
Finding Low-Cost Mental Health Care If you need mental health care but don't think you can afford it, you're not alone. Get tips on finding low-cost or free mental health care in this article for teens.
Rape Rape is forced, unwanted sexual intercourse. Rape is about power, not sex. Both men and women of any age can be raped. Find out what you can do and how to take care of yourself after a rape.
Teens Talk About Stress (Video) In this video, teens talk about what stresses them out and how they cope.
About Serious Stress Serious stress can come from dealing with a personal crisis, a disaster, a health crisis, or a mental health condition that feels out of control. Here's what to do when stress gets really serious.
5 Ways to Deal With Anxiety We all get worried or nervous about things. Here are 5 ways to control anxiety.
When Depression Is Severe Severe depression can cloud a person's thinking and lead some people to think that life isn't worth living. But severe depression can be treated. Find out what to do and how to get help in this article for teens.
Why Do People Get Depressed? There's no one reason why people get depressed - many different things can play a role. Find out more about the things that can trigger depression.
Death and Grief If someone close to you has died, you probably feel overwhelmed with grief. Read about some things that might help you cope.
Going to a Therapist Getting help with emotions or stress is the same as getting help with a medical problem like asthma or diabetes. This article explains how therapy works and how it can help with problems.
Stress & Coping Center Visit our stress and coping center for advice on how to handle stress, including different stressful situations.
Suicide We all feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions or situations sometimes. If someone is seriously depressed, suicidal thinking is a real concern. Here are warning signs and ways to get help.
iGrow iGrow
Sign up for our parent enewsletter