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What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition marked by increased stress and anxiety following a traumatic or stressful event. A diagnosis of PTSD can apply to adults, adolescents, and children. A person can be diagnosed with PTSD if exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways:

  • Directly experiencing the traumatic event(s).
  • Witnessing, in person, the event(s) occur to others.
  • Learning that a violent or accidental traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend.
  • Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to adverse details of the traumatic event (e.g., first responders collecting human remains; police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse).
  • Duration of symptoms more than 1 month

Epidemiology of PTSD

  • About 8 percent of the general population is estimated to have PTSD. An additional 5 to 15 percent may experience partial symptoms of PTSD.
  • The lifetime incidence of PTSD is estimated to be 9 to 15 percent. In women, the lifetime prevalence rate is 10 percent, versus 4 percent in men.
  • An estimated 30 percent of men develop full-blown PTSD after serving in war, and an additional 22.5 percent develop most symptoms of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

  • A diagnosis of PTSD requires the presence of one or more of the following symptoms for more than 1 month:
  • Recurrent, involuntary and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event(s).
  • Recurrent distressing dreams related to the traumatic event(s).
  • Flashbacks in which the individual feels or acts as if the traumatic event(s) is recurring. (Children may reenact trauma-specific events).
  • Intense or prolonged psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s).
  • Marked physiological reactions to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s).

In addition, a diagnosis of PTSD requires that the affected individual demonstrates the following traits for more than 1 month:

  • Avoidance of distressing memories, thoughts or feelings closely associated with the traumatic event(s).
  • Avoidance of people, places, objects and situations that arouse distressing memories, thoughts or feelings closely associated with the traumatic event(s).
  • Negative thoughts and mood associated with the traumatic event(s), beginning or worsening after the event(s), as evidenced by two or more of the following:
    • Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event(s).
    • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world (e.g., “I’m a bad person,” “No one can be trusted,” The world is completely dangerous,” “My whole nervous system is permanently ruined”).
    • Persistent, distorted thoughts about the cause of consequences of the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others.
    • A persistent negative emotional state, such as fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame.
    • Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.
    • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
    • Persistent inability to experience positive emotions, such as happiness, satisfaction or loving feelings.
  • Marked changes in behavior beginning or worsening after the traumatic event(s), as evidenced by two or more of the following:
    • Irritable behavior and angry outbursts (with little or no provocation) typically expressed as verbal or physical aggression toward people or objects.
    • Reckless or self-destructive behavior.
    • Hypervigilance.
    • Exaggerated startle response.
    • Problems with concentration.
    • Sleep disturbance, such as restlessness or difficulty falling/staying asleep.

Mental Health Library Sources:

Information included in all topics of the Mental Health Library comes from the Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria From DSM-5 and Kaplan & Sadock’s Concise Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry. Complete diagnostic and treatment information may be found within these publications.


Information within the Mental Health Library is not intended to be used for self-diagnosis purposes. Rather, it is provided as a public educational service to make people aware of mental health conditions. Please consult a qualified mental health professional for a diagnosis of any suspected mental health illness.

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