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What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Learn about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how PTSD symptoms can be treated in this comprehensive article.

Understanding PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs when someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. In the past, this disorder was known as “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” due to the significant number of soldiers experiencing PTSD symptoms during World War I and II. However, people can develop post-traumatic stress disorder at any age and for any type of traumatic event. Approximately one out of every eleven people will develop PTSD at least once.1

PTSD symptoms involve emotional and mental health disturbances. Either experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can trigger its symptoms. Examples of traumatic events include childhood neglect, physical and verbal abuse, natural disasters, serious accidents, and war.

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How Does PTSD Affect Daily Life?

Most people who experience or witness a traumatic event have difficulty coping and adjusting. This may cause a person to experience the following:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Negative moods
  • Trouble maintaining healthy relationships
  • Isolation
  • Lack of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Memory problems

PTSD symptoms can also cause other mental health concerns. These concerns can include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and panic disorder.

How Common Is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is widespread. In the United States, an estimated twelve million adults receive a PTSD diagnosis in any given year. Women experience a higher rate of PTSD symptoms at 8%, compared to 4% of men. This may be due to an increased risk of sexual assault among women.2

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Causes and Risk Factors

There are many situations that can cause PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD can develop after experiencing a distressing, frightening, or stressful event. Common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Physical and/or verbal abuse
  • Sexual assault
  • Childhood or domestic abuse
  • Serious accidents
  • War and combat exposure
  • Torture
  • Difficult childbirth experiences
  • Death of a loved one
  • Serious health conditions
  • Natural disasters

Risk Factors of PTSD

Everyone has different reactions to traumatic events. The major factor in its development is how the person’s body reacts to stress. For instance, studies found that people with PTSD have higher stress hormone levels. Brain scans have also indicated differences in the brain. They show that PTSD is more prevalent in individuals with a smaller hippocampus (a part of the brain responsible for emotions and memory). 3

Additional Risk Factors

The following includes more factors that may play a role in developing PTSD:

  • Biological sex, women are more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than men
  • Childhood trauma
  • Long-term trauma
  • History of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Little to no social support
  • Extra stress after a traumatic event

Additionally, having a parent with a mental health condition has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Like any disorder, not everyone will experience the same symptoms. Nonetheless, there are many distinct signs and symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms are divided into four groups:

Reliving Symptoms

This group is characterized by reliving the experience through thoughts and memories. The symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and hallucinations about the distressing event.

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance symptoms include avoiding thoughts, people, places, and situations that remind the individual of the trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends. Avoidance can also lead to losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable.

Arousal and Reactivity Symptoms

Psychological symptoms of increased arousal and reactivity include:

  • Excessive emotions
  • Trouble relating to others
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Outbursts of anger

Resulting Physical Symptoms

This category can also cause physical symptoms. They include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Heightened startle response
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

Cognitive and Mood Symptoms

Cognitive and mood symptoms can include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Negative thoughts about self
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Trouble remembering details of the trauma

Diagnosis of PTSD

The patient must meet specific criteria for the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The criteria are based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). For a PTSD diagnosis, one must experience:4

  • Exposure to a traumatic event, directly or indirectly
  • One or more reliving symptoms
  • One or more avoidance symptoms
  • Two or more arousal or reactivity symptoms
  • Two or more cognitive or mood symptoms
  • PTSD symptoms for more than one month
  • Significant distress or functional impairment
  • Symptoms that are not due to a medical condition or substance abuse

Treatment for PTSD Symptoms

The main treatment options for PTSD symptoms are medication and therapy. People respond to each treatment method differently. This can depend on the type of trauma, the length of exposure, and the patient’s health. Thus, it is important for medical professionals to create a personalized treatment plan based on their evaluation and assessment of each patient.


In individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, the brain processes threats differently. This can result in an easy trigger of the “fight or flight” response. PTSD can also cause anxiety and depression. Doctors can prescribe certain medications to help balance the chemicals in the brain causing these responses. Medications that have shown effective in alleviating PTSD symptoms include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and fluoxetine (Prozac)5
  • Antipsychotics: Quetiapine (Seroquel), olanzapine (Zyprexa), and risperidone (Risperdal)6
  • Beta-blockers: Propranolol (Inderal)

Patients must talk to their doctors before taking any medications.


Therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder can help ease symptoms and improve self-esteem. The most effective forms of therapy for treating PTSD include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT teaches skills to help manage problems by changing how the patient thinks and acts. The therapist encourages the individual to re-evaluate trauma-related thinking patterns, behaviors, and assumptions. This helps reduce avoidance and negative associations with the trauma.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET): This involves learning anxiety-reducing techniques. PET encourages the patient to recount trauma-related memories, thoughts, and feelings. Then, the therapist teaches relaxation techniques to decrease symptoms instead of avoiding them.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR involves moving the eyes in a specific way to process traumatic memories. It works by focusing on the traumatic memory and reprocessing how the brain stores it. The goal of EMDR is to help the patient heal from traumatic or distressing events.
  • Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT): Stress inoculation therapy is a form of CBT. It exposes the patient to milder forms of stress to build confidence. This helps identify and improve how they respond to triggers.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). CPT is another form of cognitive behavioral therapy that effectively treats PTSD symptoms. The therapist helps the patient process their thoughts on the trauma. They will then learn to challenge those thoughts and take a new perspective.

Get Help for PTSD Symptoms at Ripple Ranch Recovery

Ripple Ranch Recovery is an addiction treatment center focused on recovery and mental health. We offer a variety of treatment options to help you on your journey to a higher quality of life and overcome PTSD symptoms. Our team of experienced healthcare professionals provides compassionate and individualized care. By developing a personalized treatment plan utilizing evidence-based techniques, we can ensure you will meet your recovery goals. 

If you are experiencing PTSD symptoms, contact Ripple Ranch Recovery today. Our team is ready to answer any questions and help you begin your path to a healthy and positive life.