Understanding PTSD: Causes, Symptoms and How to Help

Man in jean outfit standing with head down over his kitchen sink looking depressed.

Sometimes people jokingly say they have “PTSD” after a stressful situation, but the truth is PTSD is a serious condition that affects about 13 million Americans every year.1 In honor of PTSD Awareness Month, check out this Q&A to learn more about this anxiety disorder.

What is PTSD?

PTSD—or post-traumatic stress disorder—is a mental health condition that can happen to people who experience or witness a terrifying or traumatic event, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some examples of events that may cause PTSD include:

  • Automobile accidents
  • Assault
  • Abuse
  • Violence including military combat
  • Distressing occupations such as first responders
  • Natural disasters
  • Traumatic childbirth
  • Loss of a loved one, particularly to upsetting circumstances
  • A life-threatening diagnosis

PTSD can affect anyone. It can develop immediately after a distressing event, or it can surface weeks, months or even years later, which is known as Delayed-Onset PTSD.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

PTSD can affect each person differently, and symptoms may change over time for an individual. Intensity of symptoms may increase and decrease over time and be triggered by stress or reminders of the traumatic event.

According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD symptoms fall into four categories:

  1. Intrusive memories may include: recurrent, distressing memories of the event; flashbacks; upsetting dreams about the event; severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the event.
  2. Avoidance may include: avoiding thinking or talking about the event; avoiding people, places and activities that remind you of the event.
  3. Negative changes in thinking and mood may include: negative thoughts, hopelessness, memory problems, difficulty maintaining relationships, feeling detached from loved ones, lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, feeling emotionally numb.
  4. Changes in physical and emotional reactions may include: being easily startled, hypervigilance, self-destructive behavior, insomnia, trouble concentrating, anger or aggressive behavior, irritability, overwhelming guilt or shame.

When Should I See a Doctor?

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms and you feel like PTSD is affecting your life, relationships or job, it’s important to talk to a doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible. Timely treatment can help prevent symptoms from worsening.

If you’re a veteran, please contact the Wounded Warrior Project® Resource Center at (888) 997-2586 or [email protected]. They will connect you with someone who can help and other resources available to veterans.

Are you struggling to know when you need mental health help? It may help to read Mental Health Awareness Month: How to Know (and Help) When It’s Just Too Much

What Treatments Are Available for PTSD? 

People with PTSD often worry they will never feel normal again, but there are treatments that are very effective in helping patients. Treatment often includes therapy and medications. According to WebMD, PTSD therapy has three goals:

  1. Improving symptoms
  2. Teaching coping skills
  3. Restoring self-esteem

Medications used to treat PTSD may include: antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), antipsychotics, beta-blockers and benzodiazepines. Oftentimes, a combination of therapy and medications is used to help treat a person with PTSD.

Supporting your mental health is important. Check out these 5 Ways to Promote Mental and Emotional Health in Retirement

What If I Have Suicidal Thoughts?

If you think you may attempt suicide or hurt yourself, call 911 immediately.

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, seek help from one or more of these resources: a loved one, a spiritual leader, a suicide hotline, a doctor or mental health professional.

How Can I Help a Loved One with PTSD?

If someone you care about has PTSD, it’s important to remember that they may not always have control over their behavior. However, you may be able to help them feel safe and supported by:

  • Providing social support
  • Being a good listener
  • Helping them manage triggers
  • Supporting treatment

Check out this helpful article to learn how to help someone with PTSD.

Improving your brain health can help preserve your mental well-being. Read our article 5 Lifestyle Changes to Help Brain Health in Retirement for helpful tips.

1U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD: National Center for PTSD, https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_adults.asp, February 2023.

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