Up to 30% of people who witness a traumatic event then go on to experience some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms can vary widely between individuals.
A person with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and have feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.
They may also have problems sleeping, such as insomnia, and may find concentrating difficult. The symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.
The symptoms of PTSD usually develop during the first month after a person witnesses a traumatic event. However, in a minority of cases (less than 15%), there may be a delay of months or even years before symptoms start to appear.
Some people with PTSD experience long periods when their symptoms are less noticeable. This is known as symptom remission. These periods are often followed by an increase in symptoms. Other people with PTSD have severe symptoms that are constant.
Re-experiencing is the most typical symptom of PTSD.
A person will involuntarily and vividly relive the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or repetitive and distressing images or sensations. Being reminded of the traumatic event can evoke distressing memories and cause considerable anguish.
Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event is another key symptom of PTSD.
Reminders can take the form of people, situations or circumstances that resemble or are associated with the event.
Many people with PTSD will try to push memories of the event out of their mind. They do not like thinking or talking about the event in detail.
Some people repeatedly ask themselves questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the event. For example, they may wonder why the event happened to them and whether it could have been prevented.
Hyperarousal (feeling ‘on edge’)
Someone with PTSD may be very anxious and find it difficult to relax. They may be constantly aware of threats and easily startled. This state of mind is known as hyperarousal.
Irritability, angry outbursts, sleeping problems and difficulty concentrating are also common.
Some people with PTSD deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all. This is known as emotional numbing. They may feel detached or isolated from others, or guilty.
Someone with PTSD can often seem deep in thought and withdrawn. They may also give up pursuing the activities that they used to enjoy.
Other possible symptoms of PTSD include:
- depression, anxiety and phobias
- drug misuse or alcohol misuse
- sweating, shaking, headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach upsets
PTSD sometimes leads to the breakdown of relationships and causes work-related problems.