Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

What is post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety problem. It can develop after your safety or life is threatened, or after you experience or see a traumatic event. Some examples of traumatic events are a natural disaster, rape, severe car crash or fighting in a war. Usually, the event makes you feel very afraid or helpless. People with PTSD have trouble coping with and getting over traumatic events and often feel the effects for months afterward.

Who develops PTSD?

Whether you'll develop PTSD may depend partly on how severe and intense the trauma was and how long it lasted. People who have anxiety, depression or other mental disorders are more likely to develop PTSD. People who have been victims of previous trauma are also at greater risk.

Who is at risk for developing PTSD?

The following people may be at risk for PTSD:

  • Anyone who has been victimized
  • Anyone who has seen a violent act
  • Survivors of rape, domestic violence, physical assault such as a mugging or any other random act of violence
  • Survivors of unexpected events such as car wrecks, fires or terrorist attacks
  • Survivors of natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes
  • Anyone who was sexually or physically abused
  • Soldiers, veterans or victims of war or combat
  • Anyone who has responded to traumatic events such as firefighters, police or rescue workers
  • Anyone diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or those who have had surgery
  • Anyone who has experienced grief such as the unexpected loss of a loved one

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

You can have symptoms right after the trauma or they can develop months, or even years, later. Your symptoms may include:

  • Having flashbacks, nightmares, bad memories or hallucinations
  • Trying not to think about the trauma or staying away from people who remind you of it
  • Not being able to recall parts of the event
  • Feeling emotionally numb or detached from others
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Being irritable, angry or jumpy

People with PTSD are often depressed. Sometimes they try to feel better by using alcohol or drugs. This can lead to substance abuse and addiction.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose PTSD by talking with you about your symptoms and experiences.

How is PTSD treated?

There are many treatments available. Medicines for depression or anxiety may be helpful. Talking to a mental health professional and your friends and family about the event and your feelings can also help. PTSD can cause depression and substance abuse. These problems should be treated before or during PTSD treatment.

How long does PTSD last?

PTSD can be treated successfully. However, without treatment, it can last several months to many years, depending on what happened to you and how you feel about it.

What can I do to help myself recover?

  • Check your local phone directory for support groups in your area.
  • Contact the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Alliance.
  • Learn more about PTSD, and work with your doctor or therapist to get better.

More Information

For more information talk to your doctor.

Other Organizations


Written by editorial staff.

Primary Care Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by JT Lange, CAPT, MC, USA, CL Lange, CAPT, MC, USA and RBG Cabaltica, M.D. (American Family Physician September 1, 2000,

Reviewed/Updated: 12/06
Created: 03/02