PTSD: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Updated in December 2023

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological syndrome in which a person feels they are "reliving" a traumatic experience from their past, like fighting in a war, an assault or sexual abuse. 

Although fear is a normal reaction to traumatic situations, PTSD causes excessive and constant fear that interferes with a person’s ability to complete day-to-day activities, even if the traumatic event happened many months or years ago. 

PTSD can impact a person’s life, relationships and work negatively. People with PTSD are also at a higher risk for substance abuse. Psychological assessment and monitoring is advised if symptoms of PTSD are very pronounced. 

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Main symptoms

Some symptoms that patients with PTSD may experience include: 

  • Intense memories
  • Increased heart rate and sweating
  • Scary thoughts and/or constant nightmares
  • Frequent anxiety 
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rage attacks
  • Avoiding environments that remind you of the traumatic event 
  • Avoiding thinking about or talking about the event
  • Having less interest for activities that were once pleasurable 
  • Feeling guilty 
  • Negative self-esteem

To be considered PTSD, these symptoms should be present for at least 1 month, and should not be caused by another organic disease. 

Common causes

PTSD can emerge in anyone over the age of 6 years old, and is usually associated with situations like: 

  • Living through a traumatic event
  • Being repeatedly exposed to traumatic events, like living near a hospital or working as a paramedic 
  • Witnessing a traumatic event that happened to another person (e.g. kidnappings or assault) 
  • Knowing about a traumatic event that happened to someone close to you 

This disorder is more common in women and in events that cause physical injury, like beatings, burns or sexual violence. 

Confirming a diagnosis 

The main factor for confirming a PTSD diagnosis is the occurrence of a past traumatic event that was life-threatening. This event should be assessed and explored by a psychologist or psychiatrist. 

In addition, a psychiatrist may order further testing to rule out other organic conditions, like alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and other mental disorders, like depression or panic syndrome. These conditions can present very similarly to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment options

Treatment for PTSD should be monitored by a psychologist or psychiatrist, and should be adapted to each individual person. In most cases, treatment involves psychotherapy sessions based in cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and desensitization therapy. These sessions should start as quickly as possible and should have set timeframe of about 12 sessions. 

A psychiatrist can also prescribe medications like serotonin reuptake inhibitors, like sertraline and paroxetine. These help to relieve symptoms of insomnia and panic attacks. Other medications, like beta-blockers (e.g. propranolol) can help relieve anxiety symptoms.