Understanding the Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD, is a mental health condition that can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. The symptoms of PTSD can be debilitating and have a significant impact on a person’s daily life and functioning. Understanding the common symptoms of PTSD is an important first step in getting help and treatment.

Intrusive Memories

One of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD are intrusive memories or re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares. The person may feel like they are reliving the event over and over again against their will. Triggers like sights, sounds or smells associated with the trauma can bring on intrusive memories and cause intense emotional and physical reactions. Intrusive memories keep the traumatic experience fresh in the mind of the PTSD sufferer and make it difficult to move past the event.


Many people with PTSD try to avoid anything that reminds them of their trauma. This avoidance applies to thoughts, feelings, people, places, activities, objects and situations associated with the event. Avoidance helps alleviate distress in the short-term but prevents the processing and recovery needed to move forward. Extreme avoidance can severely limit a person’s activities and social interactions. Some key signs of avoidance include isolation, substance abuse, emotional numbing and efforts to avoid discussing the trauma.

Negative Thoughts and Feelings

PTSD can cause a range of upsetting emotions including fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame and sadness. Sufferers may experience depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, self-loathing and detachment. Their outlook on life may become negative as they dwell on thoughts about the trauma. Feeling unsafe, mistrustful of others and hopeless about the future are common. Suicidal thoughts can sometimes occur. These difficult thoughts and emotions take a heavy toll on mental health.


People with PTSD tend to be tense and jumpy, easily startled and always on alert for danger. This is known as hyperarousal. It stems from the body’s heightened fight-or-flight response that was activated during the trauma. Now in a constant state of arousal, they may have trouble relaxing or sleeping well. Hypervigilance for threats leads to difficulty concentrating. Irritability and angry outbursts are common. Headaches, nausea and other physical symptoms may accompany the anxiety. Hyperarousal makes it hard to tune out distractions and focus.

Re-experiencing Symptoms

Those with PTSD often have vivid sensory memories of the trauma that make them feel like it’s ongoing. Nightmares and vivid flashbacks are common. during which the person mentally relives the event. These episodes elicit intense emotional and physical reactions like panic, screaming and shaking as if the trauma was actually happening again. Triggers like anniversaries of the event can bring on these re-experiencing symptoms.

Triggers and Reminders

A major characteristic of PTSD is heightened reactivity to memories of the trauma. Previously neutral stimuli associated with the event become triggers that evoke re-experiencing. Triggers are unique to each person and can include sights, sounds, smells, places, weather, dates on the calendar, conversations, media coverage, medical exams or routines. Because triggers are woven into daily life, those with PTSD must cope with upsetting memories intruding frequently. Managing exposure to potential triggers becomes very important.

Social Changes

PTSD often causes people to withdraw from loved ones, become detached emotionally and lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Strained relationships may result. Trust issues, a sense of disconnection and difficulty communicating thoughts and feelings are common. Social life revolves more around safety concerns. Avoiding crowds, unfamiliar situations or strangers may happen. Though lonely, establishing new relationships feels risky or unsafe.

Recognizing these common PTSD symptoms is vital for proper diagnosis and treatment. While the symptoms are highly distressing, the condition is treatable through medications, therapy and support systems. Early intervention leads to better outcomes, sosymptoms should not be ignored. Speaking with a doctor or mental health professional is the first step to regaining mental well-being.