What is PTSD?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder which can develop in some people that have witnessed or lived through a shocking, scary or dangerous event. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after a trauma but most people recover naturally, however, some people relive the experience over and over again. If your symptoms last for more than a month, or are very extreme, you may be given a diagnosis of PTSD. There is no time limit on distress, as some people may not develop post-traumatic symptoms until many years after the event and not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event develops PTSD.

What Causes PTSD?

The cause of PTSD is when someone experiences from something traumatic, for example something very frightening, stressful or a distressing event or after a prolonged traumatic experience. These events can be anything from a car accident, sudden death of a loved one,  being posted in the military, terrorist attack, being a witness for something criminal such as a murder or sexual abuse.

The Symptoms

Everyone's experiences are different and as such PTSD develops differently from person to person. In some circumstances symptoms develop just hours or days after the event however sometimes it can take weeks, months or even years before they appear.

There are three main types of symptoms:

1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event - this is when someone involuntary and vividly relives the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of distress and also physical sensations such as pain, sweating, nausea or heart pounding.

2. Avoiding reminders of the trauma - you may avoid things that remind you of the trauma such as activities, places or thoughts. You may feel detached from others and lose interest in life in general and feel you have a limited future.

3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal - you may start to have trouble sleeping, become easily irritated and have outbursts of anger, find it difficult to concentrate, you may be jumpy and easily startled and find that you are on constant alert.

Some people also have constant negative thoughts about their experience, repeatedly asking themselves questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the event. For example, they may wonder why the event happened to them and if they could have done anything to stop it, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame.

Self Help

There are a few things people with PTSD can do to help themselves. The first being to educate yourself about your condition.

Exercise such as walking, swimming, running and dancing are very good as these work both the arms and legs, they will also work better if you focus on how your body feels after you have exercised. Focus on things like the sensations you feel such as your breathing, the wind on your face or your feet hitting the ground

Talking about your feelings, when you are ready, is a good way of helping you to come to terms with your experience. You may have a friend, relative or a colleague you can speak to, if not you may wish to go to a counsellor (your GP will be able to help you find one). Speaking to someone that has had a similar experience may also help and you can find support groups and websites on the internet.

Facing your fears can also help you overcome some of your symptoms. You should do this gradually over a period of time and this takes planning and patience.


The main treatments for PTSD are psychotherapy and medication. Before any treatment has been decided your GP will carry out an initial assessment but if your symptoms are severe and you have had them for more than four weeks you will be referred to a mental health specialist for further assessment.

If you have had your symptoms for less than for weeks and they are mild then your GP may suggest the watchful waiting approach. This is when your GP keeps a close eye on you to see if your symptoms get worse or better. This is recommended because two out of every three people can get better within a few weeks without treatment. If this is recommended you must attend all follow up appointments with your GP.

Your GP may decide that you require treatment and this is usually a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Psychotherapy is a type of therapy used to treat emotional problems and mental health illnesses including PTSD. The main type of psychotherapy used to treat PTSD is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. However, there is a relatively new treatment called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) which has been found to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.

EMDR involves making side to side eye movements, usually by following the movement of your therapist's finger, while recalling the traumatic incident. It's not yet clear how EMDR works, but it helps the malfunctioning part of the brain to process distressing memories and flashbacks so their influence over the brain is reduced.

Your GP may also prescribe antidepressants to reduce any other associated symptoms such as depression and anxiety and this can also help with sleeping problems. (Not usually prescribed to under 18 years old)


Recovery from PTSD can be an ongoing process, and in some instances people may relapse and begin to experience symptoms after they have stopped their therapy or stopped their medication. If this happens they must resume their treatment as they just weren't ready to stop. However, a lot of studies have shown that the treatments above can reduce PTSD symptoms, and many people who complete these treatments no longer have PTSD.

NHS Choices - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder