What is post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd)?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Substance use disorder in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Overview

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can happen after a traumatic event. This is a very upsetting event that you see or that happens to you or a loved one. A sexual assault, a car crash, a natural disaster, and war are examples of this type of event.

PTSD affects people in different ways. It can get in the way of school or work. It can also make you withdraw from friends or loved ones. Some people use alcohol or drugs to help relieve their symptoms. This can lead to problems.

If you have PTSD and use alcohol or drugs, you're more likely to get a substance use disorder. Like PTSD, a substance use disorder is a mental health condition. It affects your brain and behavior. When you have this condition, it's very hard to control your use of substances. Substances include alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription and over-the-counter medicines.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a strong and lasting emotional reaction to a very disturbing event, such as war, violent crime, or a natural disaster.

It's normal for such events to make you feel scared, confused, or angry for a while. But if these feelings don't go away or if they get worse, you may have PTSD. Symptoms include having nightmares or flashbacks about the event, not being able to feel or express emotions toward loved ones, and being easily angered or "on edge."

PTSD can make it very hard for you to deal with life, your job, or your family and friends. Treatment with counseling and medicines can help.

What happens when you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD can make it hard to do daily activities like work or school. It can also affect your relationships with those who are closest to you like your partner, friends, or family. You may also develop unhealthy behaviors to cope with your symptoms, like drinking too much, lashing out, or avoiding others.

What are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event. But they may not happen until months or years later. They also may come and go.

You may have PTSD if you:

  • Feel upset by things that remind you of what happened.
  • Have nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event.
  • Avoid places or things that remind you of what happened.
  • Feel bad about yourself and the world.
  • Feel numb or lose interest in things you used to care about.
  • Feel that you're always in danger.
  • Feel anxious, jittery, or irritated.
  • Have trouble sleeping or concentrating.

Children can have PTSD too. They may have the symptoms listed above or other symptoms that vary based on their age. For example, young children may act out trauma through play, but older children may engage in risky behaviors.

If you think you or your child has PTSD, talk to your doctor or a counselor. Treatment can help.

PTSD: Treatment Options

PTSD: Finding Yourself Again

How is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosed?

There's no medical test that can diagnose PTSD. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, how long you've had them, and how much they affect your daily activities. Your doctor may also ask about the event or events that led to your symptoms and check to see if you have other health problems like depression.

PTSD: Having a Plan

How can you connect with your community when you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

When you have PTSD, social situations can bring up a lot of emotions. For example, you may feel on edge, anxious, or angry. Because of this, you may withdraw from those who are closest to you to cope with your symptoms. This can make it hard to connect with your community or accept support from those who care about you.

Here are things you can do to help yourself, your family, and your community better understand and deal with PTSD.

  • Know when to get crisis help. Sometimes you need help right away. This may be the case when you've had thoughts about suicide or if anger turns to rage.
  • Let your friends and family know how they can help. They play an important part in your recovery from PTSD. But you also have to help them. This means:
    • Talking to your family and friends about PTSD and what it does to you.
    • Talking to your kids. Be sure they know that they aren't to blame.
    • Talking about your triggers. Triggers are places, sounds, and sights that can cause symptoms. They can be locations, social events, or holidays.
  • Remember that life transitions—even positive ones such as getting married, having a baby, or starting a new job—can cause stress and result in more PTSD symptoms.

Your family and community are part of your recovery. Do as much as you can to work with them. With knowledge, your family and community can better help you.

PTSD: Checking In With Yourself

How can you deal with anger or violent behavior in someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

When a loved one has PTSD, he or she may feel angry about many things. Anger is a normal reaction to trauma. But it can hurt relationships and make it hard to think clearly. Anger also can be scary.

If anger leads to violent behavior or abuse, it's dangerous. Go to a safe place and call for help right away. Make sure that children are in a safe place too.

It's hard to talk to someone who is angry. One thing you can do is set up a time-out system. This helps you find a way to talk even while angry. Here's one way to do this.

  • Agree that either of you can call a time-out at any time.
  • Agree that when someone calls a time-out, the discussion must stop right then.
  • Decide on a signal you will use to call a time-out. The signal can be a word that you say or a hand signal.
  • Agree to tell each other where you will be and what you'll be doing during the time-out. Tell each other what time you will come back.

While you are taking a time-out, don't focus on how angry you feel. Instead, think calmly about how you will talk things over and solve the problem.

After you come back:

  • Take turns talking about solutions to the problem. Listen without interrupting.
  • Use statements starting with "I," such as "I think" or "I feel." Using "you" statements can sound accusing.
  • Be open to each other's ideas. Don't criticize each other.
  • Focus on things you both think will work. It's likely you will both have good ideas.
  • Together, agree on which solutions you will use.

Why should you get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Treatment can make your symptoms less intense and stop them from coming back. It can help you connect with your family, friends, and community. Many people get better with treatment.

But many people don't seek treatment for PTSD. You may not seek treatment because you think the symptoms are not bad enough. Or maybe you think that you can work things out on your own. Being in the military can add other pressures that keep you from seeking treatment. But getting treatment is important.

If you have other problems along with PTSD, such as overuse of alcohol or drugs, you also may need treatment for those problems.

What other health conditions often occur with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

PTSD doesn't always occur alone. Other medical conditions often occur with it, such as substance use disorder, depression, panic attacks, and physical health problems. Suicide is a risk for some people who have PTSD.

What causes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Anyone who has gone through or witnessed a traumatic event can get PTSD.

Examples of events include:

  • Combat or being sent to a combat zone.
  • Military sexual trauma.
  • Terrorist attacks.
  • Physical or sexual violence.
  • Serious accidents, like a car wreck.
  • Natural disasters, like a fire or tornado.
  • Serious illnesses, like cancer.
  • Staying in the hospital, especially in the intensive care unit (ICU).
  • Living in or near a conflict, like war.

Many people who go through a traumatic event don't get PTSD. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things, including:

  • How intense the trauma was.
  • If you lost a loved one or were hurt.
  • How close you were to the event.
  • How strong your reaction was.
  • How much you felt in control of events.
  • How much help and support you got after the event.

Having a history of mental health problems, substance use disorder, or childhood trauma may also increase your risk.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health problem that can result from traumatic events. It can make you feel scared, confused, or angry. And you may have nightmares or flashbacks. PTSD can cause a lot of distress and can affect your daily life. But many people get better with treatment.

How can you care for your child who has PTSD?

  • Find a counselor for your child. A counselor can help your child learn skills to cope with the trauma they've gone through. Try to find a counselor who has experience helping kids who've had trauma. Make sure your child goes to all counseling sessions and follow-up appointments.
  • If the doctor prescribed medicines, make sure your child takes them exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with any medicines.
  • Know what things can lead to your child's traumatic memories. It could be something you say or do, or something they see on TV. When you know what these things are, you and your child can try to avoid them.
  • Focus on creating a safe, stable home.
    • Make days calm and predictable.
    • Be a consistent presence.
    • Give affection. Show that you care with your actions and your words.
    • Manage your own reactions to stress.
    • If you can, try to reduce the chances of your child being exposed to a similar traumatic event again.
  • Work with your child's teachers and school counselor to help create support for your child at school.
  • Encourage your child to be active for at least an hour each day. Your child may like to take a walk with you, ride a bike, or play sports.
  • Help your child learn relaxation exercises. Your child's counselor can help. Free online videos and podcasts are also good resources. Examples of relaxation exercises include:
    • Deep breathing. This means taking slow, deep breaths.
    • Guided imagery. Your child imagines themself in a certain setting that helps them feel calm and relaxed.
    • Progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and relaxing each muscle group to reduce anxiety and muscle tension.
  • Help your child get enough sleep.
    • Set up a bedtime routine to help your child get ready for bed.
    • Have your child go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.
  • You feel hopeless or think of hurting or killing yourself.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your PTSD symptoms are getting worse.
  • You have new or worse symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • You are not getting better as expected.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.