If you are involved in or witness a traumatic event, it is common to experience upsetting, distressing or confusing feelings afterwards. The feelings of distress may not emerge straight away – you may just feel emotionally numb at first. After a while you may develop emotional and physical reactions, such as feeling easily upset or not being able to sleep.
This is understandable, and many people find that these symptoms disappear in a relatively short period of time. But if your problems last for longer than a month, or are very extreme, you may be given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
There’s no time limit on distress, and some people may not develop post-traumatic symptoms until many years after the event. Additionally, not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event develops PTSD.
The diagnosis ‘PTSD’ was first used by veterans of the Vietnam War, but the problem has existed for a lot longer and has had a variety of names, including:
Today, the term PTSD can be used to describe the psychological problems resulting from any traumatic event.
The symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person, although you may experience some of the following:
“I feel like I’m straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere… my heart races and my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.”
“I'm always left shaking violently afterwards and drenched in sweat. I feel so ashamed of myself, yet I'm still too scared to look up for fear of what's there.”
“I started experiencing symptoms of PTSD after my boyfriend died. I suffered extremely vivid flashbacks that could happen at any time, anywhere, and were deeply distressing… I threw myself into another relationship very quickly to try and avoid how I was feeling, but then also would not express much affection to my new partner.”
“I was also deeply depressed and experiencing huge amounts of anxiety, refusing to go anywhere alone or go near any men that I didn't know… [I] would lock my bedroom windows and barricade my bedroom door at night.”
The situations we find traumatic can vary from person to person and different events can lead to PTSD. It may be that your responses have been bottled up for a long time after the traumatic event has passed. Your problems may only emerge months or sometimes years after a traumatic experience, affecting your ability to lead your life as you’d like to.
“I was mugged and then about a year later I was on the Tube when the police were trying to arrest someone who had a gun. In neither experience was I physically injured – although in the second one I thought I was going to die and that I was going to see lots of other people die.”
The following factors may also make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, or might make the problems you experience more severe:
Anyone can experience a traumatic event, but you may be more likely to have experienced one if you:
Different types of trauma can have different types of impact. If you experienced trauma at an early age or if the trauma went on for a long time then you may be diagnosed with ‘complex PTSD’. Treating ‘complex PTSD’ usually requires more long-term, intensive help than supporting you to recover from a one-off traumatic event.
“I was […] having uncontrollable flashbacks, regularly felt suicidal. I was emotionally numb, kept people distant and was prone to drastic loss of self control and anger.”
“I worried that I would never be able to go back to the job I loved. I worried that I would be stuck like this forever. Had I not been through it, I think I would find it hard to believe how real the whole thing was at the time. Having got through it, it has made me more hopeful about my ability to get through anything difficult – I got through PTSD, so I can get through anything!”
“At times I felt that nothing was going to end the distress I was feeling, experiencing more than 10 flashbacks a day of the abuse I suffered as a child. It was a long process of recovery, with lots of bumps along the road, but the right medication and long-term therapy with someone I came to trust, has changed my life.”
The sort of treatment you're offered for depression will depend on:
The main treatments for PTSD are:
** Information in this section is kindly provided by the mental health charity MIND **