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An Overview of PTSD Symptoms

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Updated April 10, 2014

Through years of research, 17 PTSD symptoms have been identified. These are symptoms that can develop following the experience of a traumatic event and are listed in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-IV). These 17 symptoms are divided into three separate clusters. The three PTSD symptom clusters, and the specific symptoms that make up these clusters, are described below.

Re-Experiencing Symptoms

  • Frequently having upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event.
  • Having recurrent nightmares.
  • Acting or feeling as though the traumatic event were happening again, sometimes called a "flashback."
  • Having strong feelings of distress when reminded of the traumatic event.
  • Being physically responsive, such as experiencing a surge in your heart rate or sweating, to reminders of the traumatic event.

Avoidance Symptoms

  • Making an effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
  • Making an effort to avoid places or people that remind you of the traumatic event.
  • Having a difficult time remembering important parts of the traumatic event.
  • A loss of interest in important, once positive, activities.
  • Feeling distant from others.
  • Experiencing difficulties having positive feelings, such as happiness or love.
  • Feeling as though your life may be cut short.

Hyperarousal Symptoms

  • Having a difficult time falling or staying asleep.
  • Feeling more irritable or having outbursts of anger.
  • Having difficulty concentrating.
  • Feeling constantly "on guard" or like danger is lurking around every corner.
  • Being "jumpy" or easily startled.

Many of these symptoms are an extreme version of our body's natural response to stress. Understanding our body's natural response to threat and danger (the fight or flight response) can help us better understand the symptoms of PTSD.

Do You Need All of These Symptoms for a Diagnosis of PTSD?

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person does not need to have all these symptoms. In fact, rarely does a person with PTSD would experience all the symptoms listed above. To receive a diagnosis of PTSD, you only need a certain number of symptoms from each cluster. Additional requirements for the diagnosis also need to be assessed, such as how the person initially responded to the traumatic event, how long the symptoms have been experienced, and the extent with which those symptoms interfere with a person's life. You can learn more about receiving a diagnosis of PTSD from the following article:

Being Diagnosed with PTSD: What to Expect

The symptoms of PTSD can have a major impact on many areas of a person's life. Fortunately, you can do some things to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Coping with Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can be difficult to cope with, and as a result, many people with PTSD develop unhealthy coping strategies, such as alcohol or drug abuse or deliberate self-harm. Therefore, it is important to develop a number of healthy coping strategies to manage your PTSD symptoms:

Ways of Coping with Anxiety
Healthy Ways to Manage Your Emotions
Ways of Coping with Unpleasant Thoughts and Memories
Coping with Sleep Problems
How to Identify and Cope with PTSD Triggers
Managing Flashbacks and Dissociation

A number of psychological treatments have been found to be effective in helping people cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Cognitive-Behavioral Treatments for PTSD
Cognitive-Behavioral Treatments (or CBT) for PTSD focus on changing the way in which people evaluate and respond to situations, thoughts, and feelings, as well as unhealthy behaviors that stem from thoughts and feelings.

Exposure Therapy for PTSD
Exposure therapy is a behavioral treatment for PTSD that aims to reduce a person's fear, anxiety, and avoidance behavior by having a person fully confront (or be exposed to) thoughts, feelings, or situations that are feared.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a behavioral treatment that is based in the idea that our suffering comes not from the experience of emotional pain, but from our attempted avoidance of that pain. Its overarching goal is to help people be open to and willing to have their inner experiences while focusing attention not on trying to escape or avoid pain (because this is impossible to do) but instead, on living a meaningful life.

Treatments for the Co-Occurrence of PTSD and Substance Abuse
PTSD and substance abuse frequently co-occur, and therefore, several treatments have been developed that specifically target this co-occurrence. Seeking Safety is one such treatment.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy for PTSD
Psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on numerous factors that may influence or cause a person's symptoms, such as early childhood experiences, current relationships and the things people do to protect themselves from upsetting thoughts and feelings. Unlike CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy emphasizes the role of the unconscious mind in our behaviors.

If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it is important that you get the help you need. Many people have recovered from PTSD through treatment. However, unaddressed symptoms of PTSD can get worse over time and may contribute to the development of other psychological disorders, such as major depression, substance use disorders, eating disorders, or anxiety disorders. You can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through UCompare HealthCare from About.com, as well as the Anxiety Disorder Association of America.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed. Washington, DC: Author.

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