How Do I Know If I Have PTSD?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 26, 2024
3 min read

Many of us have been through a traumatic event -- a frightening experience that has a deep emotional effect on us. Even if it didn’t happen to you directly, witnessing it or hearing about it can sometimes be enough to shake you up.

As time passes, your shock and fear might fade. But what if you can’t shake the anxiety, insomnia, and flashbacks that stem from a past trauma? You might have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s a mental health problem people sometimes develop after experiencing a life-threatening event, like war, a rape, or a car accident.

To figure out if you have it, your doctor will talk to you about the trauma and see if your reactions fit into the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for PTSD. You must meet all eight of them in order to be diagnosed with PTSD. Here are the criteria:

Criterion A: You must have been exposed to or threatened with death. Or, you must have had an actual or serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. You must have experienced at least one of these things in the following ways:

  • First-hand experience
  • Witnessing the event
  • Learning that a close friend or relative experienced it or was threatened
  • You’re regularly exposed to other people’s trauma, maybe for your job

Criterion B: You experience the trauma over and over through at least one of the following:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Thoughts you can’t control
  • Emotional distress
  • Physical symptoms when thinking about the event

Criterion C: You avoid things that remind you of the trauma. To meet this criterion, you must do one of these things:

  • Avoid thoughts or feelings related to the trauma. For example, you might refuse to talk about war if war was the cause of your symptoms.
  • Avoid things that remind you of the trauma. You might not watch war movies for fear of triggering painful feelings, for instance.

Criterion D: You have negative thoughts or feelings that started or got worse after the trauma. To meet this criterion, at least two of these must be true for you:

  • You remember little about the event
  • You’re overly negative about yourself or the world
  • You blame yourself or others for the trauma, even if it’s not true
  • You lack interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • You feel lonely and isolated
  • You find it hard to be positive or experience joy

Criterion E: Your symptoms started or got worse after the traumatic event. At least two of these things must be part of your experience:

  • You’re often irritable or angry
  • You constantly feel on guard, or you’re easily startled
  • You engage in risky or dangerous behavior
  • You have trouble sleeping
  • You have trouble staying focused

Criterion F: You meet this criterion if any of your symptoms have lasted for more than a month.

Criterion G: Your symptoms make it hard to work or keep up with daily life.

Criterion H: Your symptoms aren’t caused by medicines, illegal drugs, or another illness.

If you meet all of these standards, your doctor will diagnose you with PTSD. Next step: treatment.