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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an anxiety disorder that develops after a person experiences a very stressful, frightening or distressing event.

PTSD symptoms include reliving the event in flashbacks and nightmares. A person with PTSD may also feel guilt, isolation, problems concentrating and sleep problems.

Symptoms may be seen shortly after the event or may emerge some time later.

Not everyone who goes through a traumatic event will experience PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD often are grouped into three main categories, including:

  • Re-living: People with PTSD repeatedly re-live the ordeal through thoughts and memories of the trauma. These may include flashbacks, hallucinations, and nightmares. They also may feel great distress when certain things remind them of the trauma, such as the anniversary date of the event.
  • Avoiding: The person may avoid people, places, thoughts, or situations that may remind him or her of the trauma. This can lead to feelings of detachment and isolation from family and friends, as well as a loss of interest in activities that the person once enjoyed.
  • Increased arousal: These include excessive emotions; problems relating to others, including feeling or showing affection; difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability; hypervigilence; outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; and being "jumpy" or easily startled The person may also suffer physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, nausea and diarrhoea.

Young children with PTSD may suffer from delayed development in areas such as toilet training, motor skills, and language.

Who gets PTSD?

Everyone reacts to traumatic events differently. Each person is unique in his or her ability to manage fear and stress, and to cope with the threat posed by a traumatic event or situation. For that reason, not everyone who experiences or witnesses a trauma will develop PTSD. The type of help and support a person receives from friends, family members and professionals following the trauma may influence the development of PTSD or the severity of symptoms.

PTSD was first brought to the attention of the medical community by war veterans, hence the names shell shock and battle fatigue syndrome. However, PTSD can occur in anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. People who have been abused as children or who have been repeatedly exposed to life-threatening situations are at greater risk of developing PTSD. Victims of trauma related to physical and sexual assault face the greatest risk of PTSD.

How common is PTSD?

PTSD affects around 1 in 3 people after a traumatic event. PTSD can occur at any age, including childhood.

Around 40% of people with PTSD will have suffered a sudden bereavement of someone close to them.

Women are more likely to develop PTSD than are men. (10% of women compared with 5% of men) This may be due to the fact that women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, abuse and rape.

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