What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

The term PTSD which stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is used to describe a range of physical and emotional symptoms that people may experience following a traumatic event and which sometimes do not emerge until years after the event.

Just hearing news of events, such as the July 2005 London bombings, incidents in the war in Afghanistan or the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, can have a lasting effect on you. If you are actually present during a disaster of this nature it’s likely that you will become extremely distressed. Likewise if you are involved in, or witness, events such as road accidents, muggings, sexual or physical assaults, these experiences may also cause you deep emotional injury. There is no doubt that the reactions which may follow can seriously hamper and interfere with your life.

If you are involved in or witness a traumatic event, it is common to experience upsetting, distressing or confusing feelings afterwards. The feelings of distress may not emerge straight away – you may just feel emotionally numb at first. After a while you may develop emotional and physical reactions, such as feeling easily upset or not being able to sleep.

This is understandable, and many people find that these symptoms disappear in a relatively short period of time. But if your problems last for longer than a month, or are very extreme, you may be given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There’s no time limit on distress, and some people may not develop post-traumatic symptoms until many years after the event. Additionally, not everyone who has experienced a traumatic event develops PTSD.

Other terms for PTSD

The diagnosis ‘PTSD’ was first used by veterans of the Vietnam War, but the problem has existed for a lot longer and has had a variety of names, including:

• Shell shock
• Soldier’s heart
• Battle fatigue
• Combat stress
• Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS)

Today, the term PTSD can be used to describe the psychological problems resulting from any traumatic event.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person, although you may experience some of the following:

Reliving aspects of the trauma:

• Vivid flashbacks (feeling that the trauma is happening all over again)
• Intrusive thoughts and images
• Nightmares
• Intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma
• Physical sensations, such as pain, sweating, nausea or trembling.

“I feel like I’m straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere… my heart races and my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.”

Alertness or feeling on edge:

• Panicking when reminded of the trauma
• Being easily upset or angry
• Extreme alertness
• A lack of or disturbed sleep
• Irritability and aggressive behaviour
• Lack of concentration
• Being easily startled
• Self-destructive behaviour or recklessness.

“I'm always left shaking violently afterwards and drenched in sweat. I feel so ashamed of myself, yet I'm still too scared to lookup for fear of what's there.”

Avoiding feelings or memories:

• Keeping busy
• Avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma
• Repressing memories (being unable to remember aspects of the event)
• Feeling detached, cut off and emotionally numb
• Being unable to express affection
• Using alcohol or drugs to avoid memories.

“I started experiencing symptoms of PTSD after my partner died. I suffered extremely vivid flashbacks that could happen at any time, anywhere, and were deeply distressing… I threw myself into another relationship very quickly to try and avoid how I was feeling, but then also would not express much affection to my new partner.”

You may also develop other mental health problems, such as:

• Severe anxiety
• A phobia
• Depression
• A dissociative disorder
• Suicidal feelings.

“I was also deeply depressed and experiencing huge amounts of anxiety, refusing to go anywhere alone or go near any people that I didn't know… I would lock my bedroom windows and barricade my bedroom door at night.”

These are all quite common reactions to a traumatic event, and many people find the symptoms will disappear relatively quickly. If they are extreme and persist, you may be diagnosed with PTSD.


What causes PTSD?

The situations we find traumatic can vary from person to person and different events can lead to PTSD. It may be that your responses have been bottled up for a long time after the traumatic event has passed. Your problems may only emerge months or sometimes years after a traumatic experience, affecting your ability to lead your life as you’d like to.

“I started to feel different about a year after I left the army. I was really short-tempered, snappy, I wasn’t sleeping and I started drinking a hell of a lot. I was getting flashbacks and having recurrent nightmares. I knew I needed help as I would get lost in a flashback whilst driving an HGV at night.”

A traumatic event could include:

• A serious accident, for example a car crash
• An event where you fear for your life
• Being physically assaulted
• Abuse in childhood
• A traumatic childbirth, either as a mother or a partner witnessing a traumatic birth
• Extreme violence
• Military combat
• Seeing people hurt or killed
• A natural disaster, such as flooding or an earthquake
• Losing someone close to you in disturbing circumstances.

For our military and blue-light service personnel however the likelihood that they will experience a traumatic situation and also that they will, if deployed on active service, be likely to have this happen on more than one occasion, is extremely high. Although the majority of people who find themselves in such situations are able to gradually calm down and process whatever has happened and sustain little or no psychological damage about 25% go on to develop persistent post traumatic stress.

“The event that caused my trauma happened 20 years ago when I was a fire officer. I started to become distressed for no real reason. Everything seemed emotional, and I felt raw and exposed.”

The following factors may also make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event, or might make the problems you experience more severe:

• Experiencing repeated trauma
• Getting physically hurt or feeling pain
• Having little or no support from friends, family or professionals
• Dealing with extra stress at the same time, such as bereavement or loss
• Previously experiencing anxiety or depression.

Different types of trauma can have different types of impact. If you experienced trauma at an early age or if the trauma went on for a long time then you may be diagnosed with ‘complex PTSD’. Treating ‘complex PTSD’ usually requires more long-term, intensive help than supporting you to recover from a one-off traumatic event.

“I was […] having uncontrollable flashbacks, regularly felt suicidal. I was emotionally numb, kept people distant and was prone to drastic loss of self control and anger.”

Anyone can experience a traumatic event, but you will be more likely to have experienced one if you work or have worked in a high risk occupation such as the military, police or other blue light services.

The important thing to remember is that PTSD can be treated. The first step can often be talking to someone who understands about your concerns or worries. If you recognise these symptoms in yourself or a loved one and feel that you require support please call us. Our telephone number is 01209 210350. We are open during office hours and the phone is always answered by one of our team who will guide you to someone who will be able to help. Outside office hours a voice mail service is available – please leave us a message and we will return your call as soon as we can. You can also email us at: or contact us via the ‘contact’ page on this website.