What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 20, 2024
3 min read

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental condition that some people develop after a shocking, terrifying, or dangerous event. These events are called traumas.

After a trauma, it’s common to struggle with fear, anxiety, and sadness. You may have upsetting memories or find it hard to sleep. Most people get better with time. But if you have PTSD, these thoughts and feelings don’t fade away. They last for months and years, and may even get worse.

PTSD causes problems in your daily life, such as in relationships and at work. It can also take a toll on your physical health. But with treatment, you can live a fulfilling life.

During a trauma, your body responds to a threat by going into “flight or fight” mode. It releases stress hormones, like adrenaline and norepinephrine, to give you a burst of energy. Your heart beats faster. Your brain also puts some of its normal tasks, such as filing short-term memories, on pause.

PTSD causes your brain to get stuck in danger mode. Even after you’re no longer in danger, it stays on high alert. Your body continues to send out stress signals, which lead to PTSD symptoms. Studies show that the part of the brain that handles fear and emotion (the amygdala) is more active in people with PTSD.

Over time, PTSD changes your brain. The area that controls your memory (the hippocampus) becomes smaller. That’s one reason experts recommend that you seek treatment early.

There are many. They may include disturbing flashbacks, trouble sleeping, emotional numbness, angry outbursts, and feelings of guilt. You might also avoid things that remind you of the event, and lose interest in things that you enjoy.

Symptoms usually start within 3 months of a trauma. But they might not show up until years afterward. They last for at least a month. Without treatment, you can have PTSD for years or even the rest of your life. You can feel better or worse over time. For example, a news report about an assault on television may trigger overwhelming memories of your own assault.

PTSD interferes with your life. It makes it harder for you to trust, communicate, and solve problems. This can lead to problems in your relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. It also affects your physical health. In fact, studies show that it raises your risk of heart disease and digestive disorders.

PTSD was first described in war veterans. It was once called “shell shock” and “combat fatigue.” But PTSD can happen to anyone at any age, including children. In fact, about 8% of Americans will develop the condition at some point in their lives.

Women have double the risk of PTSD. That’s because they’re more likely to experience a sexual assault. They also blame themselves for a traumatic event more than men do.

About 50% of women and 60% of men will experience emotional trauma sometime in their lives. But not everyone develops PTSD. The following factors increase your risk:

  • Previous experience with trauma, like childhood abuse
  • Having another mental health issue, like depression and anxiety, or a substance abuse problem
  • Having a close family member, such as a parent, with a mental health problem, like PTSD or depression
  • Working a job that may expose you to traumatic events (the military or emergency medicine)
  • Lacking social support from friends and family

There’s no cure for this condition. But you can successfully treat it with therapy. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine, such as antidepressants. With proper treatment, some people may stop having PTSD symptoms. For others, they may become less intense.

It’s important to seek help if you think you have PTSD. Without it, the condition usually doesn’t get better.