Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following any event that makes you fear for your safety. Most people associate PTSD with rape or battle-scarred soldiers—and military combat is the most common cause in men—but any event, or series of events, that overwhelms you with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and leaves you emotionally shattered can trigger PTSD, especially if the event feels unpredictable and uncontrollable.
PTSD can affect people who personally experience the threatening event, those who witness the event, or those who pick up the pieces afterwards, such as emergency workers. PTSD can also result from surgery performed on children too young to fully understand what's happening to them.
Traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:
- Natural disasters
- Car or plane crashes
- Terrorist attacks
- Sudden death of a loved one
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Childhood neglect
Common PTSD symptoms
PTSD develops differently from person to person because everyone's nervous system and tolerance for stress is a little different. While you’re most likely to develop symptoms of PTSD in the hours or days following a traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. There are three main types of symptoms:
Re-experiencing the traumatic event. You may experience upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).
Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for yourself.
Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. You may experience trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, have difficulty concentrating, be jumpy and easily startled, and feel hyper vigilant (on constant “red alert”).
Other common symptoms
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Depression or hopelessness, including suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Substance abuse
- Physical aches and pains
Symptoms of PTSD in children
In children—especially very young children—the symptoms of PTSD can be different from adults and may include:
|PTSD symptoms in children|
|Fear of being separated from parent|
|Losing previously-acquired skills (such as toilet training)|
|Sleep problems and nightmares|
|Somber, compulsive play in which themes or aspects of the trauma are repeated|
|New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma (such as a fear of monsters)|
|Acting out the trauma through play, stories, or drawings|
|Aches and pains with no apparent cause|
|Irritability and aggression|
How PTSD affects your nervous system
When your sense of safety is shattered by a traumatic event, it’s normal to have bad dreams, feel fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened. For most people, these symptoms gradually lift over time. But this normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when the symptoms don’t ease up and your nervous system gets "stuck."
Your nervous system has two automatic or reflexive ways of responding to stressful events:
Mobilization, or fight-or-flight, occurs when you need to defend yourself or escape the danger of a traumatic event. Your heart pounds faster, your blood pressure rises, and your muscles tighten, increasing your strength and reaction speed. Once the danger has passed, your nervous system calms your body, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, and winding back down to its normal balance.
Immobilization occurs when you’ve experienced an overwhelming amount of stress in a situation and, while the immediate danger has passed, you find yourself “stuck.” Your nervous system is unable to return to its normal state of balance and you’re unable to move on from the event
“Non-traumatic stressful life events (work, school, financial, health, marriage, or significant change) are as likely as traumatic events to cause symptoms typically associated with Post-Traumatic Stress.”
~Post-Traumatic Stress without Trauma
Harvard Mental Health Letter (December, 2005)
"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation, and a foundation for inner security." - Albert Einstein.
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