Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops after a traumatic event. PTSD has also been called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue."

PTSD is triggered by exposure to a traumatic event in which a person feels intense fear, helplessness or horror. PTSD has been reported in people who experienced:

  • War
  • Rape
  • Physical assault
  • Natural disasters
  • Sexual abuse
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Animal attack


People with PTSD experience symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms fall into three categories:

Re-experience the event:

  • Dreams or nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Anxious reactions to reminders of the event
  • Hallucinations


  • Avoidance of having close emotional contact with family and friends
  • Avoidance of people or places that are reminders of the event
  • Loss of memory about the event
  • Feelings of detachment, numbness


  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Anger and irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Being easily startled
  • Hypervigilance

People with PTSD may also:

  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Have physical symptoms, such as pain, rapid breathing or heart rate and sweating
  • Have depression or anxiety 
  • Have problems with relationships

Diagnosis & Treatment

Your doctor can diagnose PTSD if you have:

  • Symptoms that have lasted for more than one month
  • Both emotional distress and disturbed functioning (e.g., problems at school, work or home) due to the symptoms

PTSD is categorized according to when symptoms occur and how long they last. There are three types of PTSD:

  • Acute — symptoms last between 1-3 months after the event
  • Chronic — symptoms last more than three months after the event
  • Delayed onset — symptoms do not appear until at least six months after the event

Cognitive-Behavior Therapy

Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) involves changing your thinking patterns to improve symptoms. Your therapist may teach you techniques to manage anxiety, stress and anger.

Exposure Therapy

In exposure therapy, your therapist gradually guides you through a visualization where you re-experience the trauma in a controlled environment. This helps you let go of fear and gain control over your anxiety.

Group Therapy

Meeting in a group with other trauma survivors can be an effective and powerful form of therapy for people with PTSD.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

During this type of therapy, you’ll talk about the traumatic event, including your memories, feelings and sensations. While talking, your therapist has you move your eyes side-to-side following hand movements. EMDR combines techniques from both CBT and exposure therapy. The goal is to allow your mind to process the trauma and to develop more positive beliefs about yourself.


Medicine may help with anxiety, depression and insomnia.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.