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Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder -- the Basics

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can occur in anyone who experiences or witnesses a life-threatening event that causes feelings of intense fear and/or helplessness. These events include but are not limited to military combat, acts of terrorism, natural disasters, automobile accidents, and personal attacks such as rape or other physical assault. Because personal attacks, such as rape and sexual abuse, happen to females more often, women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD in their lifetime.

Traumatic experiences have an effect on people. It makes it hard to sleep. You may feel detached from everyday life. You may suffer nightmares or flashbacks -- the sudden re-experiencing of traumatic memories and emotions. Over the course of a few weeks, these symptoms usually go away. When they don't -- or when they later re-emerge -- a person is said to have PTSD. About one in three people with PTSD develop a long-lasting form of the disorder.

PTSD disrupts daily life. It makes it hard to do your job and complicates relationships with family and friends. It often leads to divorce and parenting problems.

PTSD usually isn't a person's only problem. People with PTSD often have trouble with depression, substance abuse, and other physical and mental ailments. They are also six times more likely to attempt suicide than those without PTSD.

What Causes PTSD?

People (and animals) respond to a life-threatening event by fighting or fleeing. Potent chemical messengers in the brain warn us of danger and prepare us to defend ourselves. If there's too much of this stimulation, or if it goes on for too long, the brain may suffer side effects. Some of these side effects appear to contribute to PTSD.

PTSD is associated with changes in brain function and structure. There's also a tendency for key stress hormones to get out of whack.

Risk factors that may contribute to PTSD include a family history of anxiety, early separation from parents, earlier childhood abuse, or prior trauma.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on April 12, 2014

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