Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – What is it?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and find concentrating difficult.

These symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.


People still don’t know exactly why they experience feelings of extreme anxiety, depression, flashbacks and anger following a trauma.

The symptoms of PTSD are thought to be coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress the body and brain have gone through and even ways for the brain to come to terms with what has happened.

Unsurprisingly, certain professions due to their working environments are much more likely to result in PTSD. For instance, up to 30% of those in the combat troops and 25% of war reporters were found to suffer with PTSD symptoms. But Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the general population is much more common than you may think. 3% of the UK adult population tested positive for PTSD characteristics, with women twice as likely to suffer as men.

Cause and symptoms of it

PTSD symptoms fall into four categories, many of which overlap. It is useful to know that you may not immediately show symptoms after the event. In fact, in cases of complex PTSD where there have been repeated traumas (such as childhood neglect or domestic violence) it can take several years for the symptoms to appear.

The four categories:

Intrusive memories

  • Flashbacks and reliving the event
  • Vivid memories
  • Upsetting dreams about the incident

Negative feelings

  • Loss of interest in social interaction
  • Loss of libido
  • Feeling despair about the future
  • Being easily upset
  • Physical ailments that are not explained
  • Getting a fright more easily
  • Always looking “over your shoulder” for threatening situations

Numbing and avoidance

  • Memory loss about the event
  • Avoiding people or places that remind you of the event
  • Feeling distant about the event when discussed with you
  • Detachment

Emotional disturbances

  • Feeling distressed and anxious
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Sleep disturbances, trouble getting to sleep or waking
  • Irritability
  • Low in mood

The type of events that can cause PTSD include:

  • serious road accidents
  • violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery
  • prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect
  • witnessing violent deaths
  • military combat
  • being held hostage
  • terrorist attacks
  • natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis

PTSD can develop immediately after someone experiences a disturbing event or it can occur weeks, months or even years later.

PTSD is estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have a traumatic experience, but it’s not clear exactly why some people develop the condition and others don’t.


Left untreated PTSD can seriously impact on the individuals’ life – relationships with family and friends can deteriorate and it can become really hard to carry on working. Sadly many people turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping.

The good news is that both Acute stress disorder and PTSD respond well to treatment.

Talking therapies such as psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and family therapy can help the individual come to terms with the traumatic event, develop coping mechanisms and deal with the aftermath of the event.

EMDR can be very useful in reducing the distress experienced when remembering the event – it works by helping the brain unblock the memories which have become frozen on a neurological level.

Medication can also be helpful.