What is PTSD? | PTSD symptoms and PTSD definition

What is PTSD? Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD definition is a mental condition that develops after exposure to a terrifying event or events where someone feels they are in grave physical danger.

Everyone will experience traumatic events, and most will recover. Someone with PTSD relives the traumatic experience over and over unable to cope. PTSD symptoms include nightmares, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, overly anxious feelings, mood swings, and irritability.

Few things to remember about PTSD:

PTSD diagnosis should only be made by a mental health professional after testing and evaluation
PTSD longevity varies per person
PTSD risks increase in someone with a history of mental illness
PTSD can occur at any age
PTSD recovery is possible

There is no PTSD test. A diagnosis is reached over time by observation.

PTSD treatment involves specialized care with both therapy and medication. As treatment is complex, it’s essential to work with a professional. A strong social support network is essential in recovery.

Therapeutic approaches include psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure therapy. Medication will treat symptoms, but it will not cure it.

In the DSM-5, diagnosis criteria are as follows. Know that full diagnostic criteria must be met to receive a PTSD diagnosis.

Criterion A: stressor: The person was exposed to death or threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required)

Direct exposure
Witnessing, in person

Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.

Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties. This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures.

Criterion B: intrusion symptoms: The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s): (one required)

Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories. Note: Children older than six may express this symptom in repetitive play

Traumatic nightmares. Note: Children may have frightening dreams without content related to the trauma(s)

Dissociative reactions which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness. Note: Children may reenact the event in play

Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders

Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli

Criterion C: avoidance: Persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event: (one required)

Trauma-related thoughts or feelings

Trauma-related external reminders

Criterion D: negative alterations in cognitions and mood: Negative changes in cognitions and mood that began or worsened after the traumatic event: (two required)

Inability to recall key features of the traumatic event (usually dissociative amnesia; not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs)

Persistent (and often distorted) negative beliefs and expectations about oneself or the world

Persistent distorted blame of self or others for causing the traumatic event or for resulting consequences

Persistent negative trauma-related emotions

Markedly diminished interest in (pre-traumatic) significant activities

Feeling alienated from others

Constricted affect: persistent inability to experience positive emotions

Criterion E: alterations in arousal and reactivity: Trauma-related alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the traumatic event: (two required)

Irritable or aggressive behavior

Self-destructive or reckless behavior


Exaggerated startle response

Problems in concentration

Sleep disturbance

Criterion F: duration: Persistence of symptoms (in Criteria B, C, D, and E) for more than one month

Criterion G: functional significance: Significant symptom-related distress or functional impairment

Criterion H: exclusion: Disturbance is not due to medication, substance use, or other illness

Specify if: With dissociative symptoms: In addition to meeting criteria for diagnosis, an individual experiences high levels of either of the following in reaction to trauma-related stimuli:

Depersonalization: an experience of being an outside observer of or detached from oneself

Derealization: the experience of unreality, distance, or distortion

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