Symptoms of PTSD

Not every traumatized person develops full-blown or even minor PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within three months of the incident but occasionally emerge years afterward. They must last more than a month to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies; some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In untreated cases, the condition often becomes chronic.

A doctor who has experience helping people with mental illnesses, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, can diagnose PTSD. The diagnosis is made after the doctor talks with the person who has symptoms of PTSD. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have all of the following for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least three avoidance symptoms
  • At least two hyperarousal symptoms

Symptoms are considered clinically significant when they make it hard to go about daily life, go to school or work, be with friends, or take care of important tasks. PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more other anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can cause many symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts.

Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person’s everyday routine. They are often triggered by one's own thoughts about the trauma. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger re-experiencing.

2. Avoidance symptoms

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
  • Losing interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past
  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event.

Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her usual routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping, and/or having angry outbursts.

Hyperarousal symptoms remain constant, rather than being triggered by things that remind one of the traumatic event. They can make the person feel on-edge, easily stressed and angry. These symptoms may make it hard to do daily tasks, such as sleeping, eating, or concentrating.

It’s natural to have some of these symptoms after a traumatic event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they are considered PTSD. Some people with PTSD don’t show any symptoms for weeks or months.

PTSD and Trauma in Children

Children and teens can have extreme reactions to trauma, but their symptoms may not be the same as adults. In very young children, these symptoms can include:

  • Bedwetting, when they’d learned how to use the toilet before
  • Forgetting how or being unable to talk
  • Acting out the scary event during playtime
  • Being unusually clingy with a parent or other adult.

Older children and teens usually show symptoms more like those seen in adults. They may also develop disruptive, disrespectful, or destructive behaviors. Older children and teens may feel guilty for not preventing injury or deaths. They may also have thoughts of revenge. 

At Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles, we are experts in the field of evidence-based treatment for PTSD. Call or email today to schedule an appointment.