Individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) typically have symptoms from each of the following four (4) categories:
- Intrusion symptoms (the event repeatedly and uncontrollably invades their thoughts);
- Avoidance of anything that reminds them of the event;
- Negative effects on thinking and mood and
- Changes in alertness and reactions.
The traumatic event may repeatedly reappear in the form of involuntary, unwanted memories or recurrent nightmares.
Some individuals have flashbacks, in which they relive events as if they were actually happening rather than simply being remembered.
Individuals may also experience intense reactions to reminders of the event, for example:
- A combat veteran’s symptoms might be triggered by fireworks; whereas
- Those of a robbery victim may be triggered by seeing a gun in a movie.
Individuals persistently avoid things – activities, situations, or people – that are reminders of the trauma.
For example, they may avoid:
- Entering a park or an office building where they were assaulted; or
- Speaking to individuals of the same race as their assailant.
They may even attempt to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
Negative Effects on Thinking and Mood
Individuals may be unable to remember significant parts of the traumatic event (called dissociative amnesia).
Individuals may feel emotionally numb or disconnected from other people. Depression is common, and individuals show less interest in previously enjoyed activities.
How individuals think about the event may become distorted, leading them to blame themselves or others for what happened. Feelings of guilt are also common.
For example, they may feel guilty that they survived when other individuals did not. They may feel only negative emotions, such as fear, horror, anger, or shame, and may be unable to feel happy or satisfied or to love.
Changes in Alertness and Reactions
Individuals may have difficulty falling asleep or concentrating.
They may become excessively vigilant for warning signs of risk. They may be easily startled.
Individuals may become less able to control their reactions, resulting in reckless behaviour or angry outbursts.
Some individuals develop ritual activities to help reduce their anxiety.
For example, individuals who were sexually assaulted may bathe repeatedly to try to remove the sense of being unclean.
Many individuals with PTSD try to relieve their symptoms with alcohol or illicit drugs and develop a substance use disorder.