What are PTSD Symptoms?

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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What Are PTSD Symptoms?

You might think you’ve left it all behind. After a traumatic event, time passes, and you believe your mind and body have healed and moved on. However, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder might appear a few years or months later.

PTSD is tricky to recognize. It can resemble depression or anger, but it’s quite different. It can affect everything from your sleep to your relationships at home and work. 

What Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological condition that affects people who have undergone or observed a traumatic event, a series of events, or specific circumstances. These experiences are often perceived as emotionally or physically damaging and potentially life threatening and can significantly impact a person’s mental, physical, social, and spiritual well-being. 

Roughly one out of every three individuals who undergo a traumatic experience is believed to be affected by PTSD; however, the precise reasons behind why some individuals develop this condition while others don’t remain unclear.

Who Develops PTSD?

PTSD can affect anyone regardless of age or background. It can arise from various experiences, including combat, physical or sexual assault, abuse, accidents, disasters, terror attacks, or other significant events. Even witnessing or learning about someone else’s trauma can lead to PTSD.

People with PTSD may continue to feel stressed or fearful even when they are no longer in immediate danger. It’s important to note that not everyone with PTSD has personally experienced a life-threatening situation.

According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately six out of every 100 individuals will experience PTSD at some point. Women are more likely than men to develop PTSD, and certain factors, such as the nature of the traumatic event and biological influences like genetics, may heighten the chances of acquiring the condition.

Symptoms of PTSD

Typically, PTSD symptoms begin to manifest within three months of a traumatic event although there are cases where they may appear later. The symptoms must persist for more than one month and significantly impact daily life, such as relationships and work, to meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. It’s important to note that these symptoms should not be attributed to medication, substance use, or any other underlying illness.

The duration of the disorder can vary widely among individuals. While some individuals may recover from PTSD within six months, others may experience symptoms that persist for a year or longer. 

PTSD symptoms can be grouped into four categories: re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, arousal and reactivity symptoms, and cognition and mood symptoms.

Re-Experiencing Symptoms

The most prevalent sign of PTSD is reliving the troubling experience. This happens when a person unintentionally and intensely relives a distressing event through various forms, including:

  • Nightmares
  • Recurrent and distressing mental images or physical sensations linked to the trauma
  • Physical symptoms like pain, sweating, and nausea
  • Flashbacks

Additionally, individuals with PTSD may experience a never-ending stream of negative thoughts surrounding the event. They may repeatedly question themselves, preventing them from coming to terms with what happened. These persistent thoughts may revolve around why the event happened to them or whether they could have done something to prevent it. This self-doubt and introspection can lead to feelings of guilt or shame.

Avoidance Symptoms

Another prominent symptom of PTSD is the tendency to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. This often involves actively avoiding specific individuals or locations that trigger the trauma. Individuals may also refrain from discussing their experiences with others.

Many people with PTSD try to suppress memories of the event, often seeking distractions through work or engaging in hobbies. Some individuals attempt to cope with their emotions by detaching themselves and seeking emotional numbness. As a result, they may become socially isolated and withdrawn, distancing themselves from activities that they once found pleasure in.

Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms

When experiencing arousal and reactivity symptoms of PTSD, your emotions can become more intense, and your reactions may differ from your usual behavior. For example, even if you’re typically a careful driver, you might start driving too fast or become overly aggressive on the road. It’s also common to have sudden and irrational outbursts of anger.

Concentration becomes a struggle for many people with PTSD. Feelings of constant danger and being under attack can disrupt your ability to focus, making it difficult to complete everyday tasks. Also, trouble sleeping is common whether caused by nightmares or simply having difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Cognition and Mood Symptoms

Sometimes, you might struggle to remember important details about what happened after a traumatic event. Negative thoughts about yourself or the world can start creeping in, making you feel like everything is going wrong. You might even start blaming yourself or others excessively for what happened. And those negative emotions can stick around, causing fear, anger, guilt, or shame to linger in your mind.

One disruptive symptom of PTSD is losing interest in activities that you used to enjoy. This can lead to feelings of isolation, making it harder to connect with friends or family members. And it’s not just the negative emotions that take a toll; it becomes difficult to feel any positive emotions like happiness or satisfaction.

These cognition and mood symptoms can appear after the traumatic event or worsen over time. They have a way of making you feel detached. 

Complex PTSD Symptoms

Complex PTSD is a variant of the disorder that occurs in individuals who have experienced prolonged or repeated trauma, such as childhood abuse or domestic violence. This condition encompasses many of the core symptoms seen in PTSD, such as distressing flashbacks, avoidance of trauma triggers, hypervigilance, and frequent negative thoughts and emotions. However, it includes additional symptoms that make it more complex.

One of these symptoms is affective dysregulation, where individuals react strongly and aggressively to negative emotional triggers. They may also struggle with a negative sense of self, feeling constant shame, guilt, failure, and worthlessness. Forming and maintaining meaningful relationships becomes extremely challenging for those with complex PTSD.

Co-occurring Disorders With PTSD Symptoms

Co-occurring disorders, also known as dual diagnosis, refer to the simultaneous presence of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder or another mental health disorder. One common condition that can co-occur with other mental health disorders is PTSD.

When PTSD co-occurs with other mental health disorders, it can complicate the clinical presentation and treatment. Here are some common co-occurring disorders that can occur alongside PTSD and the symptoms associated with them.

Substance Use Disorder

Many individuals with PTSD may use drugs or alcohol to cope with their distressing symptoms. Substance use can temporarily relieve anxiety, nightmares, and other PTSD symptoms. However, substance use disorder (SUD) can lead to a cycle of dependence and worsen the overall condition.

Major Depressive Disorder

Depression often co-occurs with PTSD. Symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD) may include persistent sadness, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, changes in appetite and sleep patterns, feelings of worthlessness, and difficulty concentrating.

Anxiety Disorders

Various anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, can co-occur with PTSD. These disorders can intensify fear, worry, and apprehension and may lead to avoidance behaviors.

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) and PTSD often coexist. Individuals with BPD may experience difficulties regulating their emotions, engage in impulsive behaviors, have unstable relationships, and experience a profound fear of abandonment.

Dissociative Disorders

Dissociative disorders involve disruptions or discontinuity in an individual’s thoughts, memories, identity, or perception. Dissociative symptoms can be triggered by trauma, including PTSD. Examples include dissociative identity disorder (DID) and dissociative amnesia.

Co-occurring disorders can vary from person to person. Symptoms and severity may differ based on individual experiences and the specific combination of disorders. Accurate diagnosis and comprehensive treatment planning by mental health professionals are crucial in addressing co-occurring disorders effectively. Integrated treatment approaches that target both PTSD symptoms and co-occurring disorders simultaneously tend to be the most beneficial for individuals with these complex presentations.

PTSD in Children

Children and teenagers often react differently than adults when faced with traumatic events, exhibiting distinct symptoms. In children under the age of six, these symptoms can manifest as:

  • Difficulty or loss of ability to speak or experiencing temporary muteness
  • re-enacting the traumatic event during playtime
  • Bedwetting, even after having learned to use the toilet
  • Unusual clinginess toward a parent or another adult

On the other hand, older children and teenagers tend to display symptoms that align more closely with those observed in adults. This can include disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Additionally, they may experience feelings of guilt for not preventing harm or death or harbor thoughts of seeking revenge.

Treatment for PTSD

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals employ various effective methods, backed by research, to assist individuals in recovering from PTSD. Both talk therapy (psychotherapy) and medication have been proven to be effective evidence-based treatments for PTSD.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One highly effective category of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Specific types of CBT, like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and cognitive processing therapy, are frequently employed in treating PTSD.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive processing therapy is a validated and specialized form of cognitive behavioral therapy tailored to address PTSD and its associated symptoms. It concentrates on reshaping burdensome and challenging emotional experiences. (e.g., guilt, shame) and beliefs resulting from the trauma. Therapists guide individuals in confronting distressing memories and emotions.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy involves a repetitive and detailed reimagining of the traumatic event or gradually exposing individuals to triggers of their symptoms in a safe and controlled manner. This process helps individuals face fears, control distress, and learn coping strategies. Virtual reality programs have even been used to assist war veterans with PTSD in safely revisiting the battlefield.

Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is a proven therapeutic method for young individuals that merges trauma-informed interventions with a diverse range of cognitive-behavioral strategies, family-centered practices, and humanistic methods.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a trauma-centered psychotherapeutic technique administered over several months. This therapy helps individuals reprocess traumatic memories, leading to a different way of experiencing them. During sessions, the therapist guides the client through questions about the traumatic memory while eye movements similar to those during REM sleep are re-created. This process often changes thoughts, images, and feelings associated with the memory.

Group Therapy

Group therapy provides a supportive and non-judgmental environment for survivors who have undergone comparable distressing events to gather and exchange their encounters and responses. Participating in group therapy makes individuals realize that many others would have responded and felt the same way. Family therapy can also be beneficial as the behavior and distress of an individual with PTSD can impact the entire family unit.


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). SSRIs can assist individuals in managing various PTSD symptoms, including sadness, anxiety, anger, and emotional detachment. 

Healthcare professionals may prescribe SSRIs alongside psychotherapy to provide comprehensive treatment. In addition, certain medications can specifically address sleep issues and nightmares associated with PTSD. Individuals need to collaborate closely with their healthcare providers to determine the most suitable medication or combination of medications and the appropriate dosage.

Other Treatments

In addition to conventional methods, an increasing number of individuals with PTSD are turning to complementary and alternative therapies for treatment. These approaches offer alternative options outside traditional mental health clinics and often involve fewer verbal discussions and disclosures than psychotherapy. Some examples of such therapies include acupuncture, yoga, and animal-assisted therapy. Furthermore, alongside formal treatment, many individuals with PTSD find great value in sharing their experiences and emotions with others who have gone through similar circumstances. 

How to Get Help for PTSD

Seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder is an important step toward healing. At Defining Wellness Centers, we specialize in providing comprehensive care and support tailored to individuals who have PTSD. By reaching out to us, you can benefit from a range of professional services, including therapy, counseling, and holistic treatments, all aimed at addressing the unique challenges posed by PTSD. Remember that you are not alone in your struggle, and reaching out for help is a courageous step toward reclaiming your life from the grip of PTSD.

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If you are ready to take the step towards a new life, call Defining Wellness today and learn more about how we can help you.