Overview of PTSD

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that a person may develop after experiencing or witnessing an extreme, overwhelming traumatic event during which they felt intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

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The dominant features of posttraumatic stress disorder are emotional numbing (i.e., emotional non-responsiveness), hyperarousal (e.g., irritability, on constant alert for danger), and re-experiencing of the trauma (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive emotions).

Posttraumatic stress disorder is also referred to as shell shock or battle fatigue (when describing the disorder in combat veterans) and as post-rape syndrome.

Trauma & PTSD

A trauma is an intensely stressful event during which a person suffers serious harm or the threat of serious harm or death, or witnesses an event during which another person (or persons) is killed, seriously injured, or threatened. Traumatic events are commonly classified as follows:

  • Abuse
    • Mental
    • Physical
    • Sexual
    • Verbal (i.e., sexual and/or violent content)
  • Catastrophe
    • Harmful and fatal accidents
    • Natural disasters
    • Terrorism
  • Violent attack
    • Animal attack
    • Assault
    • Battery and domestic violence
    • Rape
  • War, battle, and combat
    • Death
    • Explosion
    • Gunfire

Some studies indicate that symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder also may develop after a serious medical emergency, like heart attack or stroke.

Types of PTSD

There are three types of PTSD: acute, chronic, and delayed onset. In acute PTSD, symptoms last less than 3 months. In chronic PTSD, symptoms last 3 months or more. In delayed onset PTSD, symptoms first appear at least 6 months after the traumatic event.

Incidence and Prevalence of PTSD

Lifetime prevalence is at least 1% and may be as high as 15% in the U.S. population. A National Comorbidity Survey conducted in the early 1990s found that women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD. In high-risk groups, such as combat veterans and victims of violent crimes, prevalence ranges from 3% to 58%.

PTSD is more prevalent among war veterans than among any other group. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey reports that approximately 25% of U.S. veterans, men and women, were suffering from PTSD in the early 1990s.

Men with PTSD identify combat and witnessing someone else's injury or death most often as the cause. Women identify physical attack or threat most often as the cause for PTSD.

Someone with PTSD is at risk for developing other mental health disorders such as panic disorder, phobias, major depressive disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

PTSD commonly occurs in countries where long-term war, widespread social upheaval, and frequent natural disasters are prevalent.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Feb 2001

Last Modified: 21 Jun 2012