Roughly 3.6 percent of U.S. adults will experience PTSD in their lifetime. And despite the high prevalence rate, we have only recently begun to really understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Still, there is a lot we do not know about this debilitating mental illness, and it is not always easy to know if you have PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be especially hard to pin down without a professional diagnosis because, for some people, the symptoms may not appear until months or even years after the triggering event. So, how can you tell if you have PTSD?
What is PTSD?
PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness that occurs after someone lives through or witnesses a traumatic event. It’s normal to feel afraid and helpless during and after a traumatic life experience. But sometimes, this feeling of terror lingers long after the traumatic danger has passed and may get worse with time.
When this happens, you may have PTSD. Essentially, PTSD can be described as a mental illness where a traumatic event continues to “haunt” a person through intrusive thoughts, vivid flashbacks, and nightmares.
Examples of traumatic experiences that can potentially lead to PTSD include:
- Combat or military exposure
- Child abuse or neglect
- Terrorist attacks and hostage situations
- Serious accidents, like car wrecks
- Natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes
- Physical violence
It is important to know that experiencing a traumatic event alone does not necessarily mean that you will develop PTSD. In fact, most people who experience trauma will not go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. There are other factors that may be involved, including genetic predisposition, low-stress tolerance, past history of trauma or mental illness, and lack of social support.
Symptoms of PTSD
PTSD can profoundly impact your mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and knowing the symptoms can help you get the treatment you need. PTSD symptoms are divided into four categories: reliving the event (also called re-experiencing), avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.
Re-experiencing: These are intrusive, graphic, or otherwise disturbing thoughts that intrude on your consciousness. They can manifest as vivid memories, nightmares, or flashbacks of the traumatic event and lead to strong physical reactions as if you were reliving the traumatic experience all over again.
Avoidance: You may find yourself going out of your way to avoid people, places, things, or situations that remind you of the trauma. You may feel emotionally numb and disconnected from others, lose interest in things you used to enjoy, or have trouble remembering details of the traumatic event.
Negative changes in thinking and mood: You may feel like the world is a dangerous place and that you can’t trust anyone. You may feel depressed, hopeless, angry, or guilty. Your self-esteem may suffer, and you may find it hard to concentrate or remember things clearly.
Changes in physical and emotional reactions: You may startle easily or find it hard to relax (feeling on edge all the time) even when there is no reason to be scared. You may also have trouble sleeping, engage in self-destructive behaviors, or have difficulty controlling your anger.
Remember that not everyone with PTSD will experience all the above symptoms, and the severity of symptoms can differ from person to person. It is also worth noting that these symptoms should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis but as a warning sign that you need help.
If you think you might have PTSD, it’s advisable to seek professional help right away. Early diagnosis and treatment are key to managing symptoms and preventing the condition from worsening. A mental health professional will develop a personalized treatment plan based on your situation and help you learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with your symptoms.