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What is PTSD?

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, life-threatening event (like a physical attack, a natural disaster, a car accident, terrorist attack), verbal abuse, sexual assault, or after being exposed to a family members experience of danger/harm.

It’s normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after this type of event. At first, it may be hard to do normal daily activities, like go to work, go to school, or spend time with people you care about. But most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months.

If it’s been longer than a few months and you’re still having symptoms, you may have PTSD. For some people, PTSD symptoms may start later on, or they may come and go over time.

If thoughts and feelings from a life-threatening event are upsetting you or causing problems in your life, you may have PTSD.

Here’s the good news: you can get treatment for PTSD — and it works.

For some people, treatment can get rid of PTSD altogether. For others, it can make symptoms less intense. Treatment also gives you the tools to manage symptoms so they don’t keep you from living your life.

PTSD treatment can turn your life around — even if you’ve been struggling for years.

What can cause PTSD?

Any experience that threatens your life or someone else’s can cause PTSD. These types of events are sometimes called trauma. Types of traumatic events that can cause PTSD include:

  • Combat and other military experiences
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Learning about the violent or accidental death or injury of a loved one
  • Child sexual or physical abuse
  • Serious accidents, like a car wreck
  • Natural disasters, like a fire, tornado, hurricane, flood, or earthquake
  • Terrorist attacks

During this kind of event, you may not have any control over what’s happening, and you may feel very afraid. Anyone who has gone through something like this can develop PTSD.

Trauma can take many forms.

A traumatic event could be something that happened to you, or something you saw happen to someone else. Seeing the effects of a horrible or violent event can also be traumatic — for example, being a first responder after a terrorist attack.

You’re not alone.

Going through a traumatic event is not rare. At least half of Americans have had a traumatic event in their lives. Of people who have had trauma, about 1 in 10 men and 2 in 10 women will develop PTSD.

There are some things that make it more likely you’ll develop PTSD — for example, having very intense or long-lasting trauma, getting hurt, or having a strong reaction to the event (like shaking, throwing up, or feeling distant from your surroundings).

It’s also more common to develop PTSD after certain types of trauma, like combat and sexual assault. But there’s no way to know for sure who will develop PTSD.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

There are 4 types of PTSD symptoms, but they may not be exactly the same for everyone. Each person experiences symptoms in their own way.

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    Reliving the event

    Unwelcome thoughts about the trauma can come up at any time. They can feel very real and scary, as if the event is happening again. This is called a flashback. You may also have nightmares.

    Memories of the trauma can happen because of a trigger — something that reminds you of the event. For example, seeing a news report about a disaster may trigger someone who lived through a hurricane. Or hearing a car backfire might bring back memories of gunfire for a combat Veteran.

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    Avoiding things that remind you of the event

    You may try to avoid certain people or situations that remind you of the event. For example, someone who was assaulted on the bus might avoid taking public transportation. Or a combat Veteran may avoid crowded places like shopping malls because it feels dangerous to be around so many people.

    You may also try to stay busy all the time so you don’t have to talk or think about the event.

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    Having more negative thoughts and feelings than before

    You may feel more negative than you did before the trauma. You might be sad or numb — and lose interest in things you used to enjoy, like spending time with friends. You may feel that the world is dangerous and you can’t trust anyone. It may be hard for you to feel or express happiness, or other positive

    You might also feel guilt or shame about the traumatic event itself. For example, you may wish you had done more to keep it from happening.

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    Feeling on edge

    It’s common to feel jittery or “keyed up” — like it’s hard to relax. This is called hyperarousal. You might have trouble sleeping or concentrating, or feel like you’re always on the lookout for danger. You may suddenly get angry and irritable — and if someone surprises you, you might startle easily.

    You may also act in unhealthy ways, like smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, or driving aggressively.

How do I know if I have PTSD?

The only way to know for sure is to talk to a mental health care provider. He will ask you about your trauma, your symptoms, and any other problems you have.

What do I do if I have symptoms of PTSD?

After a traumatic event, it’s normal to think, act, and feel differently than usual — but most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months. Talk to a doctor or mental health care provider (like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker) if your symptoms:

  • Last longer than a few months
  • Are very upsetting
  • Disrupt your daily life

Treatment can help — you don’t have to live with your symptoms forever.

What other problems do people with PTSD have?

Many people who have PTSD also have another mental health problem — like depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, or thinking about harming themselves or others. It’s also common to have problems at work, in relationships, or with your physical health.

Sometimes, these problems happen because of your PTSD symptoms. For example, feeling numb and avoiding places can make it hard to have good relationships with your friends and family

Getting treatment for PTSD can help with these other problems, too.

Why get treatment for PTSD?

Treatment works.
There are many treatment options for PTSD. For many people, these treatments can get rid of symptoms altogether. Others find they have fewer symptoms or feel that their symptoms are less intense.

After treatment, most people feel they have a better quality of life.

When PTSD isn’t treated, it usually doesn’t get better — and it may even get worse.

It’s common to think that your PTSD symptoms will just go away over time. But this is very unlikely, especially if you’ve had symptoms for longer than a year. Even if you feel like you can handle your symptoms now, they may get worse over time.

Getting treatment can help keep PTSD from causing problems in your relationships, your career, or your education — so you can live the way you want to.

Common questions about treatment

  • Can a therapist really understand what I’ve been through?

    Therapists can treat your PTSD whether or not they have been through trauma themselves. What’s important is that your therapist understands how you think about your experience, so she can teach you the skills you need to manage your symptoms.

  • Is it ever too late to get treatment for PTSD?

    It’s never too late. Treatment can help even if your trauma happened years ago. And treatment for PTSD has gotten much better over the years. If you tried treatment before and you’re still having symptoms, it’s a good idea to try again.

  • What if I don’t feel ready for treatment?

    It’s normal to feel like you’re not ready for treatment, or to come up with reasons why now isn’t the right time — like you can’t afford it or you’re too busy. But not wanting to talk or think about the trauma can actually be a symptom of PTSD.

    You may never feel truly ready to get help for PTSD — but if you’re having symptoms, it’s better to get treatment now than to wait. The sooner you get treatment, the sooner you can start to feel better.

What happens during PTSD treatment?

Your therapist or doctor will start by talking with you about your PTSD symptoms and your treatment options. Once you’ve chosen a type of treatment, he’ll explain what will happen, how it will help you feel better, and why it works. Remember, you can always ask questions about your treatment.

Both talk therapy and medication are proven to treat PTSD

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)

    People with PTSD often try to avoid things that remind them of the trauma. This can help you feel better in the moment, but in the long term it can keep you from recovering from PTSD.

    In PE, you expose yourself to the thoughts, feelings, and situations that you’ve been avoiding. It sounds scary, but facing things you’re afraid of in a safe way can help you learn that you don’t need to avoid reminders of the trauma.

    What happens during PE? Your therapist will ask you to talk about your trauma over and over. This will help you get more control of your thoughts and feelings about the trauma so you don’t need to be afraid of your memories.

    She will also help you work up to doing the things you’ve been avoiding. For example, let’s say you avoid driving because it reminds you of an accident. At first, you might just sit in the car and practice staying calm with breathing exercises. Gradually, you’ll work towards driving without being upset by memories of your trauma.

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

    After a trauma, it’s common to have negative thoughts — like thinking what happened is your fault or that the world is very dangerous. CPT helps you learn to identify and change these thoughts. Changing how you think about the trauma can help change how you feel.

    What happens during CPT? You’ll talk with your therapist and fill out worksheets about the negative thoughts and beliefs that are upsetting you. Then your therapist will help you challenge those thoughts and think about your trauma in a way that’s less upsetting.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

    People with PTSD react negatively to the memory of their traumas. EMDR can help you process these upsetting memories, thoughts, and feelings. You’ll focus on specific sounds or movements while you talk about the trauma. This helps your brain work through the traumatic memories. Over time, you can change how you react to memories of your trauma.

    What happens during EMDR? Your therapist will ask you to choose a memory from the trauma and identify the negative thoughts, emotions, and feelings in your body that go with it.

    You’ll think about this memory while you pay attention to a sound (like a beeping tone) or a movement (like your therapist’s finger moving back and forth). Once the memory becomes less upsetting, you’ll work on adding a positive thought.

  • Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)

    People with PTSD are often under a lot of stress. SIT teaches you skills for handling stressful situations that can help you manage your PTSD symptoms.

    What happens during SIT? You and your therapist will talk about what’s causing stress and how you cope with it. Then you’ll learn and practice how to solve problems and deal with stress in your life.


When you have PTSD, you may not have enough of certain chemicals in your brain that help you manage stress. SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and SNRIs (selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) are medications that can help raise the level of these chemicals in your brain so you feel better.

Before starting to take medication to treat PTSD, you’ll talk to a psychiatrist (a doctor who specializes in mental health). When you first start taking medication, you’ll check in with the doctor often to talk about how the medication is working. You may need to try a few different medications to find one that works.

Medications can treat PTSD symptoms alone or with therapy — but only therapy treats the underlying cause of your symptoms. If you treat your PTSD symptoms only with medication, you’ll need to keep taking it for it to keep working.

What about benzodiazepines?

Some doctors may prescribe a type of anxiety medication called benzodiazepines (or benzos) — but benzodiazepines aren’t a good treatment for PTSD. They can be addictive, cause other mental health problems, and make PTSD therapy less effective.

If you’ve been taking benzodiazepines for a long time, talk to your doctor about making a plan to stop. Ask about PTSD treatments that are proven to work and other ways to manage your anxiety

Where can I go to get help?

If you’re a Veteran, check with the VA about whether you can get treatment there. Visit to find a VA PTSD program near you.

If you’re looking for care outside the VA, ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health care provider who specializes in PTSD treatment, or visit to search for providers in your area. When choosing a mental health care provider, here are some important things to consider:

  • Find a provider who uses PTSD treatments proven to work.

    It’s best if you can find someone who offers one of the treatments, since these treatments have strong evidence showing that they work. Many mental health centers in hospital or university systems offer these treatments.

    What if I can’t find anyone who offers these treatments? Many doctors can treat PTSD with medication, but it may be hard to find therapists who use the other treatments we’ve talked about. If you can’t find a therapist who offers CPT, PE, EMDR, or SIT, ask about trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. General cognitive behavioral therapy can also be a good alternative.

  • Find out what your insurance will cover.

    If you have health insurance, check to see what mental health services are covered.

  • Find someone who is a good fit for you.

    You and your therapist or doctor will work closely together, so it’s important that you feel comfortable asking questions and talking about problems in your life. It’s always okay to look for a different therapist or doctor if you’re not happy with the person you’re seeing.