Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops in response to experiencing or witnessing an extremely stressful event involving the threat of death or extreme bodily harm, such as a sexual assault, physical violence, and military combat. It can occur in the wake of a car crash; a fire, an earthquake, or other natural disaster; or any sudden, disruptive event.
It is characterized by vivid, intrusive memories of the precipitating event, hypervigilance and reactivity to possible threats, nightmares that can destroy sleep, and mood disturbances. Those suffering from PTSD often report feeling anxious or scared even in the absence of danger. It may manifest primarily in anxiety-like symptoms, or in emotional numbness or dysphoria, or in anger and aggression, or some combination of those states. It is as if the normal stress response is locked into always-on overdrive. Those with PTSD often have difficulty functioning in everyday life, and symptoms persist for more than a month.
Although the disorder has likely existed since the dawn of human experience, it was originally thought to affect only soldiers; during World War I it was known as “shell shock.” PTSD was officially recognized as a mental health disorder in 1980. In the United States, about 3.5 percent of adults have the disorder. About half of them recover within three months. For some, the condition becomes chronic.
Treatment usually centers around talk therapy, but new forms of treatment on the near horizon combine talk therapy and medication in novel—and very promising—ways for the 50 percent of sufferers whose symptoms are not relieved by existing approaches. Studies suggest that it may even be possible to prevent PTSD from occurring, especially in high-risk situations.
Some studies estimate that as much as half of the population will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. Of those, a small number will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Even among veterans of combat, who have often been exposed to a barrage of life-threatening situations, rates of the disorder range from 10 to 30 percent, studies show.