Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological reaction to experiencing or witnessing a severely shocking event.

Key points

  1. PTSD means getting stuck in re-experiencing a traumatic event. Your body and mind act like the event is still happening, right now, even though it is in the past. It keeps your body in a fight or flight response.
  2. Although some other frightening situations can also leave your body in a very stressed state, PTSD is caused by some kind of exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation. 
  3. Symptoms of PTSD include difficulty relaxing, nightmares or flashbacks, and avoiding anything related to what happened. Symptoms last for at least a month but they can last for many years.
  4. PTSD can lead to depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
  5. If you or someone you know might have PTSD, it’s important to get help. Talk to your doctor or find a counsellor or therapist.

What causes PTSD?

PTSD symptoms develop because an event is so shocking that it overwhelms your normal ability to process what has happened. This may happen after you were exposed to one or more event(s) that involved:

  • death or threatened death
  • actual or threatened serious injury
  • actual or threatened sexual violation. 

You may have been exposed to the event(s) in one or more of the following ways:

  • you experienced the event
  • you witnessed the event as it occurred to someone else
  • you learned about an event where a close relative or friend experienced an actual or threatened violent or accidental death
  • you experienced repeated exposure to distressing details of an event, such as a police officer repeatedly hearing details about child sexual abuse.

Events that can trigger PTSD include but are not limited to:

  • assaults and other serious violence
  • sexual abuse and rape
  • motor vehicle accidents
  • natural disasters, such as earthquakes
  • being in a war or terror attack
  • being a refugee
  • working as a police officer, firefighter or other front line emergency staff
  • medical surgery, childbirth or hospitalisation.

Not everyone who is exposed to these events will get symptoms, but people who have already have difficulties may be more likely to.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Common symptoms in adults include:

  • being wired and on edge, watchful or jumpy
  • disturbed sleep with nightmares
  • avoiding situations, people or events that remind you of the event
  • flashbacks of images, memories and thoughts about the event
  • feeling numb and withdrawn or spacey and not present
  • difficulty with memory, concentration and decision-making.

In children look out for:

  • agitated or changed behaviour
  • nightmares
  • repetitive play about the event
  • unexplained physical symptoms.

When should I seek help?

It’s normal to feel shocked and upset after a traumatic event, but if you or your child are still feeling that way a month afterwards, contact your doctor.

Get help sooner if you feel highly distressed and are at risk of harming yourself or someone else. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and when they started and recommend someone to help you.

How is PTSD treated?

Learning how to safely manage distressing feelings and memories can be a first step. Talking therapy with someone experienced in working with PTSD and who you feel safe with and trust is the best way to recover. Medication for anxiety or depression may also help, in combination with talking therapies.

How can I help myself with PTSD?

  • Take good care of your basic needs, such as sleep, exercise, healthy eating and quiet time.
  • Tell your friends and family – they can support you.
  • Write about or draw what happened and how you feel.
  • Do things that help you feel calm, such as taking a walk or a bath, reading a good book or listening to soothing music.
  • Read about a PTSD app you can download onto your phone. 

Where can I find support?

There may be a support group in your area for people who have had a similar experience. Ask your doctor or therapist. If you need someone to talk to urgently, phone:

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354
  • Healthline 0800 611 116
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666
  • Youthline 0800 376 633

Learn more

Post-traumatic stress disorder Mental Health Foundation.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Better Health Channel
PTSD Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists
I can't get over it Books On Prescription, NZ

Patient resources

Self-help guide: Post-traumatic stress Moodjuice
PTSD questionnaire Anxiety and Depression Association of America
PTSD symptoms, self-help, and treatment HelpGuide.org

References

Iribarren J, Prolo P, Neagos N, Chiappelli F. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence-Based Research for the Third Millennium.  Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Dec; 2(4): 503–512.
Post-traumatic stress disorder Patient Info, UK
DSM-5 PTSD diagnostic criteria – what's changed from DSM-IV? Very Well Mind, US, 2019

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Richard Marchl & Dr Sophie Ball Last reviewed: 26 Feb 2018