What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Explore the basics of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and find out ways to support those who may have it.

Man sitting alone on a pebbled beach
Over 5 million adults in the United States have PTSD during the course of any year.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health condition that can develop after a person experiences something shocking, dangerous, or frightening. This negative experience is usually called trauma.

Most people experience some form of stress reaction after a traumatic event. This is true for both children and adults, however, this article will focus on adults specifically.

The stress reaction that follows a traumatic event is part of the body’s natural defense mechanism, our built in fight or flight system. When this system is engaged it decreases our ability to think logically by shifting our body into survival mode. We feel our heart pounding, our muscles tense - ready to fight or take flight by literally running away. In typical circumstances and for the majority of people, the fight or flight response is short-lived. We are able to recover from this scared-stuck state of mind and move into calmer thought processing. However, some people remain in that state of fight or flight, feeling like they are in danger, even if they are not, and can remain that way for months or even years. Also, it is not always obvious that someone is in this state of prolonged fight or flight. In fact, symptoms may not appear until several months or even years have passed since the traumatic event occurred.

According the National Institutes of Health, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, adults must have symptoms that interfere with relationships or work for at least one month. Some symptoms are related to re-experiencing the event and include flashbacks, bad dreams or frightening thoughts. Other symptoms are related to avoidance, such as staying away from places or avoiding thoughts/feelings that remind them of the event. Another type of symptom has to do with reactions such as constantly feeling tense, not sleeping, angry outbursts or being startled easily. Symptoms may also relate to cognition and mood, and include not being able to recall parts of the traumatic event, having unreasonable feelings of guilt or loss of enjoyment in activities.

How common is PTSD?

  • Approximately 7.8 percent of U.S. adults will experience some form of PTSD in their lifetime.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
  • Over 5 million adults in the U.S. have PTSD during the course of any year.

It is important to remember that PTSD is treatable. Treatments include medication, psychotherapy and a maintenance plan for continued mental health. Having a good support system of loved ones, family and friends is a critical factor for someone with PTSD. It can be difficult to know how to help.

Experts recommend the following ways to help someone who may have PTSD:

  • Be there – let them know you are there to listen, whenever and if ever - they need to talk. Avoid pressuring them to ‘share.’ Talking about things is not always comfortable and can make things worse. Just knowing you are there to listen, can be a comfort. Do fun stuff together like going out to eat on a regular basis, enjoying physical activities like fishing, bowling, dancing.
  • Practice self-care – manage your own stress, take time to relax, spend time with friends and do things you enjoy. Learn all you can about PTSD so you can better understand what a loved one or friend is going through. Be kind to yourself as well. You may deal with a wide range of positive and negative feelings. This makes you a human being. If things feel overwhelming, find a professional counselor for yourself, so you can process your own emotions.
  • Rebuild trust and safety – keep reminding them how much you care, create routines, minimize stress at home, point out strengths, and keep your promises. Sometimes the best thing is to be able to share with those who have similar experiences, so encourage them to join a support group.
  • Learn their triggers – PTSD has internal (hunger/pain) and external (sights/sounds) triggers that are different for everyone. These triggers can lead to panic attacks, flashbacks, or nightmares. Learning those triggers can help you both manage the outcomes. Find out what helps them best and then use this information to make a plan.

Dealing with PTSD requires effort and energy from more than just the individual person who has it. It requires as much support as possible from family, friends, medical professionals and the community. Help is out there, so don’t go it alone. Reach out to as many sources of support as you can. Life can get better with time and attention.

You may want to consider enrolling in one of Michigan State University Extension’s classes to help you and your loved one learn to manage stress and anger. Two programs, in particular, RELAX: Alternatives to Anger and Stress Less with Mindfulness are intended to help people manage anger and learn to improve their resiliency to stress.

Recommended resources:

National Alliance on Mental Health 1-800-950-6264

National Institute of Mental Health

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255


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