Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also known as PTSD) is exactly what you’d imagine from the name – a disorder that occurs in people after they have experienced a traumatic, stressful, shocking, dangerous, or frightening event.
What kind of traumatic or stressful events can cause PTSD?
The type of events that can lead to PTSD tend to vary according to gender, although this is not set in stone. Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.
Traumatic events are not uncommon, with an estimated six out of every 10 men (or 60%) and five out of every 10 women (or 50%) experiencing at least one trauma in their lives.
However, it’s important to remember that not every traumatic or stressful event will lead to PTSD. In fact, most people who do experience a traumatic event do not go on to develop PTSD.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
The symptoms of PTSD include:
- Persistent, frightening thoughts and memories of the event(s)
- Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
- Bad dreams
- Feeling detached or numb
- Jumpiness, being easily startled
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
- Feeling tense or “on edge”
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
Adapted from guidance by the National Institute of Mental Health
PTSD can significantly impair a person’s ability to function at work, at home, and socially. Recognizing these symptoms is the first step on the way to recovery.
How many people suffer from PTSD?
According to the National Center for PTSD:
- About six out of every 100 people (or 6% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
- About 12 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during a given year. Remember this is only a small portion of those who have gone through a trauma.
- About eight of every 100 women (or 8%) develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about four of every 100 men (or 4%).
Is PTSD treatable?
Yes. There is a range of treatment options for PTSD, with the most common options being medication and types of therapy.
Find out more about the best treatments for PTSD.
How is PTSD diagnosed?
To receive a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, you must fit the following criteria:
- Have been exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury or physical abuse, or actual or threatened sexual violence. This could be direct exposure, witnessing the trauma, learning that a relative or close friend was exposed to a trauma, or through indirect exposure to aversive details of the trauma, usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, medics).
- Persistent re-experiencing of the event via memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional, and/or physical distress after being reminded of the event.
- Avoidance of trauma-related thoughts, feelings or reminders.
- Negative thoughts or feelings that began or worsened after the trauma, such as inability to recall key features of the trauma, overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, negative emotions and expression (such as sadness, disgust, lethargy, fear, and distress), decreased interest in activities, feeling isolated, and difficulty experiencing positive emotions and expression.
- Changes to behavior or emotional state that began or worsened after the trauma, such as irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, and/or difficulty sleeping.
These symptoms must be causing significant distress or causing difficulties socially or at work to be recognized. In addition, a diagnosis requires you to have had symptoms that last for more than one month, and cannot be due to medication, substance use, or another illness.
A clinical diagnosis must be carried out by a licensed mental health or medical practitioner. So while you may think it’s likely you have PTSD, it’s vital to get this checked professionally.
How to help a colleague, friend, or family member with PTSD
1. Do your research
If someone close to you has been diagnosed with PTSD, or you believe they may have PTSD, the first thing you can do is to familiarize yourself with the disorder. As well as the information listed above, you can read more about it in our What is PTSD? article.The more you understand about PTSD, the better you can support the person suffering with the disorder. At the same time, keep in mind that your needs are important too, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t know everything about PTSD!
2. Be a source of comfort and compassion
Someone who has been through a traumatic event will need plenty of comfort and compassion. They may feel their whole world has been turned upside down, so the support of a loving friend or family member can help to anchor them.Let them know you are there to listen. Avoid putting any pressure on them to speak if they aren’t ready or don’t want to. It may not be the right time to talk yet, but ensure you are there for them when the time comes.If it feels as though they are withdrawing from you or pulling away, remember that this can also be a symptom of PTSD. While you may believe it would be helpful for them to talk, be around other people or take part in their usual activities, it may not be possible for them to do this right now.It can be a tricky balance to strike between offering enough support and contact while also giving the person enough space. You may need to try different options, different methods of getting in touch, and ease off at times – it can be a case of trial and error so be patient, and remember that everyone’s experience of PTSD will be unique to them.
3. Accompany them to medical appointments
As one of the symptoms of PTSD is a change in cognitive function, you may notice that the person you’re helping is finding it difficult to keep track of elements of their life that were previously not a problem. This could include attending medical appointments, particularly if they are worried about having to relive the traumatic experience.Help them by making note of scheduled appointments and offering to accompany them, both of which will ease any stress they may be feeling. Likewise, you could help to make sure they get into a routine with their medication schedule, so as not to interrupt any treatments they may have been prescribed.
4. Offer practical support
In addition to the profound jolt to a person’s emotional well-being, a life trauma can upset even the simplest daily routine.Simple, practical support can be a true lifeline for sufferers of PTSD. Perhaps you could cook or bake for them, offer to take their children to school or walk the dog? You could offer to do laundry, tidy and clean their home? While it might not seem important, these simple, practical offers of support can keep a person afloat during a very difficult time.
5. Continue with regular activities
For people experiencing PTSD it can feel as though their world has shifted forever. Everyone else is going about their daily activities as if nothing had happened, which can be isolating for the traumatized person.Try to encourage them to participate in regular activities. Make sure to suggest family activities together, like having dinner or going to a movie.Encourage contact with family and close friends. A support system will help your loved one get through difficult changes and stressful times.
6. Download the PTSD Family Coach app
PTSD Family Coach is an app developed by the National Center for PTSD, part of the US Department of Veterans Affairs.The app provides support for family members of those diagnosed with PTSD and it can help you learn about PTSD, how to take care of yourself, and how to manage your relationship with your loved one or children. The app also has information on how to help your loved one get the treatment they deserve, which is particularly helpful for those who have not yet explored treatment options.Find out more about the PTSD Family Coach app, including how to download it, by visiting the National Center for PTSD website.
7. Prioritize well-being
While they may not feel like prioritizing nutritious food and regular movement, these things can really help. Getting enough nutrients, energy, exercise, and daylight will keep their body working well even when their mind is experiencing huge distress.There is considerable research that suggests spending time in nature can be incredibly healing – even looking at images of nature can improve wellbeing. Likewise, ensuring you get enough natural light helps to keep the wake/sleep cycle functioning. Encourage the person you’re helping to spend time outdoors early in the day – this is a particularly useful tip when sleep is an issue.These suggestions apply to both the person you’re supporting but also to you. Keep yourself well while supporting loved ones.
8. Stay positive
People suffering from PTSD can often experience paralysis – they don’t want to socialize, exercise, or participate in normal, uplifting activities. If possible, encourage your loved one to find positive outlets as this can really help with recovery.This could be as simple as stepping outside their current comfort zone to connect with people, move their body, or do something fun. Offering to join them for these kinds of activities can be a great way to show your support.
9. Research PTSD support groups
PTSD support groups exist to connect people who have been through traumatizing experiences. Knowing there are people who understand what you’re feeling because they’ve experienced something similar can prevent PTSD sufferers from feeling so alone.Another beneficial part of joining a support group is that spending time with others can show healing is possible, which can give hope and help for people to stay positive.Help someone suffering from PTSD by finding out about local support groups. Why not offer to take them so they know a friendly face is close by? Every little step helps.
10. Take care of your own mental health
As noted in the introduction to this article, PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic, stressful, shocking, dangerous, or frightening event. This can include secondary trauma, which is defined as:
The emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another.
If you are supporting someone with PTSD, they may tell you about what happened to them. This is likely to be distressing to hear. Pay attention to your own mental health and make sure to take note of any changes you may notice.
While it isn’t recommended that you withdraw your support in the event of you experiencing secondary trauma (this could leave your friend or family member feeling stranded), it is recommended that you find adequate support for yourself. This could be through discussing your responses with another person in confidence, perhaps with a therapist or other mental health professional.
Do not take their trauma symptoms personally. Following a traumatic event, your loved one may exhibit uncharacteristic behavior. You may witness them being abnormally angry, mean, or closed off. Although these behaviors may feel harsh, remember they are simply processing the event, and their uncharacteristic behaviors are just a symptom of what’s happened.
If you notice yourself becoming sick, sad, or hopeless, seek the advice of your doctor.
11. Support them to seek professional treatment for their PTSD
Untreated PTSD won’t just go away by itself. In fact, it can lead to other issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction. Supporting someone suffering from PTSD may be supporting them to seek professional treatment.At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we run an award-winning PTSD treatment program. Get in touch to find out more about what treatment options are available for your loved one – call us today at 888.771.5166, schedule a callback, or complete our treatment form. We’re here to help.
 Capaldi, C. et al. (2015) “Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention,” International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), pp. 1–16. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v5i4.449.
 Cieslak R, Shoji K, Douglas A, Melville E, Luszczynska A, Benight CC (February 2014). “A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma”. Psychological Services. 11 (1): 75–86.