PTSD Awareness Month: What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

June 3, 2021

Imagine cringing when you hear a beeping sound that reminds you of an ICU monitor. Or you panic because you have pain in your abdomen and your mind flashes back to when you almost died because your appendix burst. This is what can happen if you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Triggers can strike unexpectedly, causing panicked and uncontrollable reactions.

Some people who survive life-threatening illnesses, like sepsis, can develop PTSD, which can affect their recovery and their quality of life long after their discharge from the hospital. June is PTSD Awareness Month. While the term is used a lot, not everyone understands what it is and its impact.

PTSD is not new

Although humans have been experiencing PTSD for centuries, the condition only got an official name in 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association added the term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Before that, PTSD – usually associated with war or conflict – was called “shell shock” or other similar names.

As an invisible illness, a condition like this was often brushed off in World Wars I and II, particularly when doctors first noticed some soldiers were struggling with symptoms. They often accused the soldiers of malingering or faking, so they wouldn’t have to go back to the front lines.

For many, PTSD issues lingered long after the war experience. Without a name and without recognition back then, those living with the condition didn’t get the help they needed. Civilians also developed symptoms related to being bombed, seeing people die in front of them, or simply living in fear during war time.

Over time, experts identified that wartime wasn’t the only thing that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone who lives through an extreme experience can develop PTSD. Accurate statistics are hard to come by since not everyone who has symptoms seeks help, but it’s estimated that about 9% of adults and children in the United States has PTSD at some point in their life. Experts don’t know why some people get it and others, who go through similar or maybe worse experiences, don’t.

Situations that can cause PTSD

Wartime and violent crimes are well-known triggers for PTSD, but one doesn’t have to be involved in such events to develop symptoms. Other situations that could cause PTSD include:

  • Being seriously ill, such as with sepsis, especially if treated in an intensive care unit
  • Watching a loved one go through a serious illness
  • Being involved in or witnessing a serious accident
  • Living through a natural disaster, like a tornado or flood
  • Losing a loved one
  • Being abused or witnessing abuse
  • Being bullied

PTSD isn’t only found in adults. Children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder for the same reasons if they experience something they perceive as harmful and they have no control over it.

Acute stress disorder

Reacting negatively after any traumatic event is normal. You could have nightmares or insomnia, mood swings, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and more. These signs usually start to ease off days or weeks after the event. This is called acute stress disorder, which is not the same thing as PTSD.

According to Merck Manual, to be diagnosed with acute stress disorder following a direct or indirect traumatic event, you must have at least nine of these symptoms, lasting for three to 30 days:

  • Memories of the event that are intrusive and uncontrollable; they come back time after time
  • Flashbacks while awake, recurring dreams while asleep
  • Intense reactions when something triggers a memory of the event – a sound, a sight, a smell, anything that reminds you of the trauma
  • Insomnia
  • Depression, fatigue, inability to find joy in tasks and events that used to be pleasurable
  • Feeling “out of it,” as if you don’t belong somewhere
  • Amnesia of the event or events
  • Avoiding anything that could trigger bad feelings
  • Personality changes, particularly towards anger
  • Exaggerated startle response

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

Symptoms related to PTSD are not much different than acute stress disorder, but they continue for much longer than a month. They can be broken up into four category. To be diagnosed, you must have at least one symptom in groups 1 and 2, and two symptoms in groups 3 and 4:


Group 1

Re-experiencing symptoms

Group 2

Avoidance symptoms

Group 3

Arousal/reactivity symptoms

Group 4

Cognition and mood symptoms

Flashbacks Avoiding places that remind you of the original trauma Intense startle reflex Amnesia or difficulty remembering the event
Nightmares Avoiding thinking about anything related to the trauma Feeling like you’re on edge, tense, jittery Negative thoughts about yourself and life in general
Frightening thoughts Insomnia Feeling guilty, feeling like you’re to blame for what happened
Personality changes, angry outbursts Loss of interest in what used to bring you pleasure
Difficulty concentrating, focusing


There is help

If you or someone you know has PTSD, it’s important to know that there is help. Reaching out and asking for help is the first step in recovering.

Because causes and severity of the condition vary, so do the various treatments available. Some with post-traumatic stress disorder respond well to talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, while others do better with medications. Both treatments can be used together also.

Reaching out to your personal support network can also have a positive effect. If others know that you are suffering in certain situations or if they understand why you may avoid places or events, they won’t unknowingly push you into a place where you aren’t comfortable.

Can PTSD be prevented?

Doctors and researchers don’t know why within a group of people who experience the same trauma, some develop PTSD and others don’t. But they have come up with some factors that could reduce the risk of developing the condition. They include:

  • Asking for help and support from others after the traumatic event
  • Talking about the trauma itself so others know what you experienced
  • Acknowledging the event and supporting yourself on how you got through it
  • Finding things in your life that give you pleasure and focusing on those
  • Helping others who may be going through similar issues

If you or someone you love is living with PTSD, there is hope. Ask for help. Speak with your doctor or healthcare professional, who could help guide you to local resources. You can also learn more about PTSD and resources across the country, regardless of the cause, at the PTSD: National Center for PTSD, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.