How to Identify PTSD: Signs and Symptoms

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which a person who has witnessed or experienced frightening, life-threatening or disturbing events has recurring flashbacks, nightmares or anxiety about the events. Unlike unpleasant memories a person might occasionally have of past traumas, these episodes intrude frequently into the daily life of a person with PTSD and become debilitating.

What Does Having PTSD Feel Like?

Some have described PTSD as various sensory experiences like smells, looks dreams that then trigger from the original traumatic experience that they want to heal from. Feeling constantly on alert, similar to watching a thriller film, can also be experienced. PTSD can be associated with panic attacks or be described as flashbacks, unwelcome thoughts in addition to anxiety and depression.

What is a PTSD Attack?

A PTSD attack occurs when something triggers an outburst of thoughts, memories, an anxiety attack, or depression. This is commonly referred to as a PTSD episode.

Common Symptoms Associated with PTSD  

The symptoms of PTSD generally begin within three months of the triggering incident, but can also appear years later. PTSD symptoms last longer than a month and are not attributable to a medical condition or substance abuse.

Common signs of PTSD can include: 

  • Intrusive memories 
  • Avoidance 
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood 
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions

PTSD Symptom Checklist

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Version (DSM-5),  is the manual for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, including PTSD. It outlines 20 symptoms of PTSD that are used in a self-report assessment called the PCL-5, or PTSD Checklist. While a structured interview with a behavioral health clinician is always best, the PTSD checklist can provide a provisional diagnosis of PTSD.

The self-assessment lists problems and complaints people sometimes have in regard to stressful situations and asks respondants to determine how bothered by each they have been in the past month on a scale from “not at all” to “extremely bothered”.

Examples include:

  • Having physical reactions (e.g., heart pounding, trouble breathing, sweating) when something reminded you of a stressful experience from the past
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Being super alert, watchful, or on guard
  • Repeated, disturbing memories, thoughts, images, or dreams of a stressful experience from the past

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PTSD in Children, Adults, and Veterans 

While PTSD is often associated with military personnel who have experienced the horrors of combat, the condition can affect anyone.

The signs of PTSD are similar but vary slightly across three general categories of people: children, adults, and people who have served or are serving in the military.

PTSD in Children

All children experience stressful events in life that may affect their emotions and thoughts, but generally, they recover quickly and are able to move on in a healthy manner. Some traumas, like an accident, death or near-death of a loved one, or abuse can cause long-term impact to a child whether they experienced the event firsthand, or witnessed it happening to someone else. Stress symptoms that lost longer than one month that are upsetting or interferes with the child’s relationships or ability to normally function in daily life may be an indication of PTSD.

PTSD symptoms in children include:

  • Flashbacks or intrusive mental images
  • Sleep issues
  • Depression
  • Being easily startled
  • Regressive behaviors such as thumb-sucking or bedwetting
  • Feeling agitated or “on guard”
  • Irritability or aggression
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Difficulty feeling affectionate
  • Avoiding places or situations that trigger memories
  • Losing touch with reality
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Reenactment of an event for generally short periods of time
  • Difficulty concentrating in school
  • Fears of dying at an early age

Symptoms of PTSD in Adults

Similarly to children, adults can develop PTSD as a result of many of the same factors. One unique difference is that adults can sometimes have a delayed onset of PTSD, meaning symptoms can present in adulthood that stem back to traumas experienced in childhood. This can often be overlooked if a significant stress was not experienced concurrently with symptoms.

Symptoms of PTSD in adults include:

  • Recurring upsetting memories
  • Angry outbursts
  • Substance abuse
  • Distancing oneself from loved ones
  • Reckless or self-destructive behaviors
  • Lack of interest in favorite activities
  • Avoidance of potential triggers (certain people, events, and situations)
  • Violent behavior or destruction of property
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory issues
  • Vivid and disturbing nightmares
  • Hyperarousal or the opposite
  • Sleep issues
  • Hypervigilance
  • Continual negative mood

Symptoms of PTSD in Soldiers/Veterans

Whether or not you see combat, being in the military may expose you to life-threatening or extremely stressful situations that can lead to PTSD. There are additional factors, outside of the obvious stress of combat, that can add to the likelihood of developing PTSD, including your role in the war, the politics or public sentiment surrounding the war, the location of the war, and the enemy you face. It is estimated that 30% of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD in their lifetime, and between 11-20% of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with PTSD each year.

Symptoms of PTSD in soldiers and veterans include:

  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intense distress or irritability
  • Developing a destructive addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Physical reactions when remembering the trauma including sweating, nausea, or rapid breathing
  • Avoidance
  • Feeling emotionally numb and detached from others
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Inability to remember important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Anxiety
  • Bouts of moodiness or anger
  • Insomnia

Treating PTSD

In most cases, the treatment of PTSD consists of a combination of medication and psychotherapy (or talk therapy) with a mental health professional. Medications used may include antidepressants, sedatives, and sleep aids.

Lifestyle plays an important role in the treatment of PTSD as well. People with the condition are encouraged to get plenty of exercise and avoid self-medicating with alcohol and recreational drugs, as they can have a negative impact on prescribed treatments.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, people with PTSD can lead healthy and productive lives.

When to Get Emergency Help

If you are experiencing frequent upsetting or disturbing thoughts, including thoughts of suicide, or if you are unable to control your actions or fear you may harm yourself or someone else, seek help immediately by contacting your behavioral health provider, calling 9-1-1, or going to the nearest emergency room.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454) or the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255, press 1.

Learn More About PTSD Symptoms with Baptist Health

If you’re experiencing PTSD symptoms, contact the Baptist Health Behavioral Health team today to schedule an appointment.

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