What is post-traumatic stress disorder?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a group of stress reactions that can develop after we witness a traumatic event, such as death, serious injury or sexual violence to ourselves or to others. PTSD can happen after we've been through one traumatic event, or after repeated exposure to trauma. Sometimes, PTSD can develop after hearing details about devastating and traumatic events many times, like the experience of some emergency workers. It's important to seek help to manage PTSD. There are effective treatments for PTSD, and you can feel better.
We have strong reactions to traumatic events
At times in our lives we may encounter traumatic experiences that threaten the life or safety of ourselves or others. Most of us will have a very strong reaction to these extreme and distressing events.
Feelings of fear, sadness, anger and grief are common after a traumatic event. This is part of our natural human response to danger.
Often, these feelings settle in time
Over time, with support from family and friends, we start to make sense of what's happened. These feelings usually fade and we recover. However, sometimes witnessing a distressing event can lead to severe feelings of fear and anguish that stay with us for a long time. These feelings start to interfere with our lives and stop us doing what we used to do. When this happens, we need help to get through it.
What is PTSD?
- PTSD is a mental health condition that may occur after a traumatic event, or after multiple traumatic events.
- PTSD can happen after there's been actual or threatened serious injury, death or sexual violence to ourselves or others.
- PTSD can also occur after repeated and extreme exposure to the details of traumatic events. For example, emergency workers may be exposed to repeated trauma at work.
Potentially traumatic events involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence to ourselves or others. They may make us feel fear, helplessness or horror.
Everybody responds differently to terrible events. Some traumatic events happen over a long period of time, such as sexual abuse as a child, imprisonment or torture. Others can be a single event, such as a terrible car accident.
Direct and indirect exposure
Our exposure to a traumatic event can be:
- direct - when we've experienced a personal trauma or witnessed a traumatic event
- indirect - when we hear/learn about a traumatic event.
Traumatic events can be human induced like war, terrorism, assaults and car accidents, or they can be caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, bushfires, floods and cyclones.People have different reactions to trauma, given their personal life experience, experience of past trauma, history of other mental health issues, and the specific impacts of the traumatic event. Most of us will experience at least one traumatic event in our lives.
Potentially traumatic events, include:
- sexual assault
- physical attack
- being threatened with a gun, knife or other weapon
- domestic violence or abuse
- childhood physical or emotional abuse
- serious car accidents
- distressing home or workplace accidents
- seeing someone being killed or badly injured
- being held captive
- terrorist attacks
- natural disasters like bushfires, floods, earthquakes
- plane crashes
- being first on the scene where someone has been seriously injured or killed
- repeated exposure to the details of extreme traumatic events.
Traumatic events are distressing and overwhelming
These events are usually very different to any challenges we've had before, and they can be very hard to come to terms with and process in our minds. They can be shocking and overwhelming.
Trauma can challenge our life perspective
It might make us start questioning things we always took for granted, like our safety, our family's safety, or that the world is a good place with good people.
It's important to get help
If you feel like your emotions are overwhelming and making it hard to cope, talk to your GP.
Being involved in a traumatic situation can make us feel very scared and helpless. PTSD disrupts our everyday lives and makes it hard to cope. It stops us from enjoying things, and is overwhelming and exhausting.
Everyone feels the effects of trauma differently, however when we have PTSD there are some common signs and symptoms.
Remember: Most of us will feel symptoms of trauma in the days and weeks immediately after a traumatic event. However, if you've been through a traumatic event and you're having trouble coping, especially if things are not getting better over time, it's important to ask for help. Start by talking to your GP.
PTSD has four groups of symptoms
1. Re-experiencing the trauma
Symptoms may include:
- distressing and ‘intrusive’ thoughts and memories
- flashbacks of the trauma
- severe reactions to things that remind us of the traumatic event
- reliving the event which then leads to a racing heartbeat, difficulty breathing.
2. Avoiding reminders of the event
Reminders may include:
3. Negative changes in thoughts and mood after the trauma
Symptoms may include:
- not being able to remember part of the traumatic event
- heightened sense of danger
- blaming yourself or others for the event or its aftermath
- feeling very down or numb
- feeling strong guilt, horror or anger
- being unable to enjoy things you used to find pleasurable
- feeling detached or ‘cut off’ from people.
4. Feeling ‘on edge’ and overly aroused
Symptoms may include:
- violent /angry outbursts
- reckless behaviour
- getting startled easily, feeling ‘jumpy’
- overly alert to danger (hypervigilance)
- finding it hard to sleep
- finding it hard to concentrate.
After we’ve been through a trauma, we all react differently. We might start to be very irritable or angry which can be hard on our family. We might feel despair, emotional numbing or a sense of isolation and loneliness. Our feelings can make it hard to connect to others and we might even start to withdraw from family and friends as we don’t feel like being social.
For some people it might make it hard to get to work. While sometimes people throw themselves into doing too much work to try to distract themselves from their feelings.
Some people with PTSD become very alert for danger and become overprotective with their children and relatives.
It’s important to get help
If you feel like your emotions are overwhelming and making it hard to cope, talk to your GP and they can find the best treatment for you.
Read more about getting help for PTSD.