Post-traumatic stress is often the result of a physically or emotionally traumatic experience, where an individual experienced harm, saw others experience harm, or felt threatened (such as rape, child abuse, war or natural disaster). In response to the event, the person experienced feelings of fear, helplessness, and / or horror (Stein, 2004). The three types of symptoms that distinguish PTSD from other anxiety conditions are re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and physical symptoms of arousal (Stein, 2004).
The person often re-experiences persistent frightening images or thoughts, flashbacks, dreams and memories of the event. They may also relive the traumatic event through illusions, hallucinations, and flashbacks. An individual with PTSD experiences significant symptoms of psychological and physical upset when they are exposed to situations where they re-experience the traumatic event.
In addition to re-experiencing the traumatic event, individuals with PTSD also avoid things that trigger reminders of their experience. They often make an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, conversations, activities, places, and people that remind them of the traumatic event (Stein, 2004). Avoidance can also take on the form of memory loss related to the traumatic event, reduced interest in activities of daily living, feelings of detachment from things happening around them, limited ability to express emotions, and a limited ability to look ahead to future events.
Individuals with PTSD also experience physical symptoms of increased arousal, which means they may have sleep disturbances, irritable mood, angry outbursts, concentration difficulties, symptoms of hyper vigilance, and an exaggerated startle response. All of the above-mentioned symptoms interfere with the individuals ability to continue participating in their day-to-day activities.
PTSD may be classified as acute or chronic. It is considered acute if it lasts less than three months and chronic if symptoms last longer than three months. It is also important to note that PTSD does not necessarily occur immediately after the traumatic event. A person can be diagnosed with PTSD months and years after the traumatic incident.
Stein, D. (Ed.) (2004). Clinical manual of anxiety disorders. Washington: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.