Many people have heard of PTSD, but few really understand what it is, what causes it, and how it affects people’s lives.

In their minds, it is generally connected to people being exposed to traumatic experiences during a war or a natural disaster. But that is a very limited concept of PTSD.

There is much more to it.

This post is meant to provide an introduction to PTSD. It is part one of a two-part series.

In this first post, we will talk about what PTSD is and what causes it. Furthermore, we will share information about how PTSD is diagnosed.

What Is PTSD?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health issue. As the name suggests, it happens after someone has experienced trauma or after someone witnessed a traumatic event.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as exposure to actual or threatened death that causes extreme stress. Furthermore, the stress overwhelms our ability to cope with the experience.

It is important to understand that there are many different types of trauma. The introduction to PTSD in society came through seeing the effects of war on soldiers. Therefore, as mentioned at the outset, many people think that PTSD only happens because of war. However, this is not the case.

Common Causes of PTSD

Any frightening experience can be traumatic, but in PTSD the trauma that was experienced or witnessed threatens our sense of safety to the point that we fear for our life or the life of the person going through the trauma.

tiger walking through snow toward the viewer

Some common causes of PTSD other than wartime include:

  • Physical, emotional, psychological and/or sexual abuse
  • Other criminal violence, such as robbery
  • Political violence or instability in a country
  • Medical trauma, including difficult childbirth or diagnosis of terminal illness
  • Natural disasters, including hurricanes and floods
  • Man-made disasters, including car accidents and oil spills
  • Unexpected, shocking death of a loved one

Remember that even being a witness to these events can results in developing symptoms of PTSD in some people. For example, a child who sees their mother get physically abused may experience trauma despite never being physically harmed themselves.

Furthermore, PTSD can result from a single traumatic event or from a series of events that build up over time (such as long-term childhood abuse).

All Trauma Is Valid and Worthy of Treatment

woman on swing above waterfallMany people mistakenly judge their trauma. They are ashamed to experience symptoms of PTSD.

They may think, “Oh, it wasn’t so bad,” usually because they compare their trauma to that of someone else. For example, a person who endured emotional abuse might say to themselves, “It could have been worse, I should not complain.”

The key thing to understand is that trauma is subjective. It isn’t something that we can compare between one person and the next. If you experienced trauma of any kind, then your body and coping mechanisms were overwhelmed.

Thus, if you have PTSD, you deserve treatment.

Furthermore, you may have PTSD even if you do not remember the specific event that triggered it. Trauma treatment can still help.

Diagnosing PTSD

A mental health professional looks at a number of factors to diagnose PTSD. Of course, PTSD symptoms are one clue. We will go over those in detail in part two of this series.

In addition to the symptoms, however, a therapist looks for other factors, including:

  • Is there an identifiable traumatic event or series of events?
  • Does the person experience troubling memories, nightmares, flashbacks, or dissociation?
  • Is there avoidance of thoughts, feelings, places, and other things related to the trauma?
  • How are the person’s general mood, self-esteem, and worldview?
  • How is the person’s behavior? Is there aggression, recklessness, and/or hypervigilance?
  • In what ways and to what degree do the symptoms affect them?
  • How long have the symptoms lasted?
  • Is there any other cause for the symptoms that needs to be ruled out?

When symptoms persist over time, impair the person’s ability to function in one or more areas of life, and relate to a traumatic event, PTSD may be an appropriate diagnosis.

If you have any questions or comments about trauma, PTSD, or trauma treatment, please click here to learn more.

In the next part of this series, “Introduction to PTSD – Part 2: Symptoms, Treatment, Ongoing Management,” we will discuss the specific symptoms of PTSD. We will also share treatment strategies, as well as options for long-term management of PTSD.