An Overview of PTSD Symptoms

Coping and Treatment

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Through years of research, a number of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been identified. These are symptoms that can develop following the experience of a traumatic event and are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD symptoms are divided into four separate clusters:

1. Re-Experiencing 

Re-experiencing, or reliving, the traumatic event includes these symptoms:

  • Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event
  • Having recurrent nightmares
  • Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a flashback
  • Having strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event
  • Being physically responsive, such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating, when reminded of the traumatic event

2. Avoidance 

Actively avoiding people, places or situations that remind you of the traumatic event includes these symptoms:

3. Hyperarousal

Feeling keyed up or on edge, known as hyperarousal, includes these symptoms:

  • Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling constantly on guard or like danger is lurking around every corner
  • Being jumpy or easily startled

4. Negative Thoughts and Beliefs

Thoughts and feelings about yourself and others may become negative and can include these symptoms:

  • Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event
  • A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities
  • Feeling distant from others
  • Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as happiness or love
  • Feeling as though your life may be cut short

Many of these symptoms are an extreme version of our body's natural response to stress. Understanding our body's natural response to threat and danger, known as the fight or flight response, can help us better understand the symptoms of PTSD.

Do You Need All of These Symptoms for a Diagnosis of PTSD?

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person does not need to have all these symptoms. In fact, rarely does a person with PTSD experience all the symptoms listed above. To receive a diagnosis of PTSD, you only need a certain number of symptoms from each cluster.

Additional requirements for the diagnosis also need to be assessed, such as how you initially responded to the traumatic event, how long the symptoms have been experienced and the extent to which those symptoms interfere with your life.

 

Coping with Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can be difficult to cope with, and as a result, many people with PTSD develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug abuse or deliberate self-harm. Therefore, it is important to develop a number of healthy coping strategies to manage your PTSD symptoms. More information on coping strategies can be found here:

9 Ways to Cope with Anxiety
Healthy Ways to Manage Your Emotions
Ways of Coping with Unpleasant Thoughts and Memories
Coping with Sleep Problems
How to Identify and Cope with PTSD Triggers
Managing Flashbacks and Dissociation

Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

A number of psychological treatments have been found to be effective in helping people cope with the symptoms of PTSD, including:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for PTSD

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for PTSD focuses on changing the way in which people evaluate and respond to situations, thoughts, and feelings, as well as unhealthy behaviors that stem from thoughts and feelings.

  • Exposure Therapy for PTSD

Exposure therapy is a behavioral treatment for PTSD that aims to reduce your fear, anxiety and avoidance behavior by having you fully confront, or be exposed to, thoughts, feelings or situations that are feared.

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for PTSD

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a behavioral treatment that is based on the idea that our suffering comes not from the experience of emotional pain, but from our attempted avoidance of that pain. Its overarching goal is to help people be open to and willing to have their inner experiences while focusing attention not on trying to escape or avoid pain, since that is impossible to do, but instead on living a meaningful life.

  • Treatments for the Co-Occurrence of PTSD and Substance Abuse

PTSD and substance abuse frequently co-occur, and therefore, several treatments have been developed that specifically target this co-occurrence. Seeking safety is one such treatment.

  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy for PTSD

Psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on numerous factors that may influence or cause a person's symptoms, such as early childhood experiences, current relationships and the things people do to protect themselves from upsetting thoughts and feelings. Unlike CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy emphasizes the role of the unconscious mind in our behaviors.

Getting Treatment for PTSD Is Important

If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important that you get the help you need. Many people have recovered from PTSD through treatment. However, unaddressed symptoms of PTSD can get worse over time and may contribute to the development of other psychological disorders, such as major depression, substance use disorders, eating disorders or anxiety disorders. Ask your doctor or mental health professional for a recommendation or referral to someone who specializes in treating PTSD.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author.

"Symptoms of PTSD." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD (2015).

"DSM-5 Criteria for PTSD Released." U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD (2016).

"DSM-5 Criteria for PTSD."  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD (2016).

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