soldier with PTSD

Symptoms & Signs of PTSD

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) appears in some people who live through situations that are extremely dangerous, frightening or distressing. Some people develop a short-term or acute version of the disorder that lasts for no longer than a few months. However, others develop a chronic form of the condition that can linger for years. Let’s look at the signs and symptoms that can occur in a person affected by PTSD.

The Four Symptom Categories

Mental health professionals break down the symptoms of PTSD into four categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, arousal and reactivity symptoms, and cognition and mood symptoms.

Re-experiencing Symptoms — Symptoms in this category get their name because they make you feel like you are reliving or re-experiencing parts of the event that first triggered PTSD. Some people relive the event during sleep in the form of nightmares. Others experience “flashbacks” of the triggering event while awake, or experience fear when they encounter sights, sounds or smells that remind them of that event.

Avoidance Symptoms – Avoidance symptoms get their name because they make you want to avoid anything that reminds you of the situation that led to the onset of post-traumatic stress. For instance, if you developed PTSD after surviving a combat situation, you may do everything you can to avoid loud noises or movies with combat scenes. If you developed the condition after surviving a fire, you may do everything you can to avoid the smell of burning or any open flame.

Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms — The symptoms in this category are based around an inability to shut down your body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response, which usually only kicks in during moments of active stress or threat. Specific problems you or your loved one may experience include jumpiness, an inability to concentrate, emotional outbursts, a feeling of edginess or tension that never seems to go away and insomnia or other sleeping difficulties.

Cognition and Mood Symptoms — Cognition and mood symptoms are changes in your thoughts and emotions that have a negative impact on your life outlook. They can include loss of the ability to enjoy yourself, lack of trust in others, feelings of blame toward others and feelings of guilt toward yourself. You may also forget important details of the event that first triggered PTSD.

The Official Definition of PTSD

Most people who survive major physical or emotional trauma will experience some of the symptoms of PTSD. However, in the majority of cases, these symptoms fade relatively quickly and don’t meet the criteria that doctors use to diagnose the condition. Even if your symptoms last for up to 30 days after a traumatic event and seriously disrupt your life, you don’t necessarily have PTSD. Instead, you may have something called acute stress disorder (ASD). Some people with ASD continue to experience problems for longer than 30 days; under these circumstances, doctors will consider diagnosing PTSD. You can also receive a PTSD diagnosis if you never had ASD and your symptoms first appeared 30 days or more after the triggering event.

So, what is the official definition of PTSD? To qualify for a diagnosis, you or your loved one must have symptoms for one month or longer after the date of a traumatic event. At least one of the problems present must fall into the category of re-experiencing symptoms. In addition, at least one of the problems present must fall into the category of avoidance symptoms. Finally, you or your loved one must have two or more cognition and mood symptoms, as well as two or more arousal and reactivity symptoms.

Symptoms in Teenagers and Younger Children

A teenager or younger child who survives a traumatic event may react quite differently than an adult. For this reason, the symptoms of PTSD in this age group often don’t look the same as the symptoms found in older people. In a child under the age of 6, the list of possible problems includes an inability to speak, bedwetting that takes place after successful potty training, an abnormal desire to cling to an adult authority figure and the use of playtime activities to live out details of a traumatic event. In teens and younger children age 6 and older, things to look for include taking the blame for a traumatic event, acting disruptively, destroying property or belongings, and treating adults with unusual disrespect.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – National Center for PTSD: Symptoms of PTSD http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/symptoms_of_ptsd.asp

National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

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