Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), originally known as “shell shock,” is an anxiety-related mental health disorder that occurs after an extremely stressful event, such as a sexual assault, physical violence, or military combat. It was originally thought to only impact soldiers—hence the name “shell shock”—and some early observers of the phenomenon incorrectly linked it to weak character or a lack of moral fiber. But as psychologists’ understanding of PTSD expanded, they recognized that it can occur after nearly any traumatic event, and is not a sign of weakness or poor character. It was officially recognized as a mental health disorder in the DSM-3, which was released in 1980.

Those suffering from PTSD may have frequently recurring memories of the stressful event, and often report feeling anxious or scared even in the absence of danger. More intense flashbacks and terrifying nightmares are common symptoms as well, as is a faulty flight-or-fight response. These symptoms are thought to be the result of changes in the brain and body that affect hormone production—particularly adrenaline—and cause the brain to respond incorrectly to situations that “trigger” the individual.

In the United States, PTSD affects about 8 million American adults, with women at greater risk than men. Treatment—which usually centers around talk therapy, but can also include medication in certain cases—can help patients manage anxiety-related symptoms and learn to respond to triggering situations in healthier ways.

For more information on symptoms, causes, and treatment see our Diagnosis Dictionary.

Recovery from Trauma

Some studies estimate that as much as half of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Of those, a small number will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Understanding what trauma does to the brain—and why different people respond to it in different ways—is critical for developing novel ways to treat PTSD, and has become a major focus of psychological science. While psychotherapy has long been viewed as one of the most effective responses to PTSD, in recent years psychedelic-assisted therapy, mindfulness techniques, and play therapy have also demonstrated promise in small studies.

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