What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
You feel on edge. Nightmares keep coming back. Sudden noises make you jump. You’re staying at home more and more. Could you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
If you have experienced severe trauma or a life-threatening event — whether during a time of war or in a noncombat situation — you may develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress, or what is commonly known as PTSD. Maybe during the event you felt as if your life or the lives of others were in danger or that you had no control over what was happening. While in the military, you may have witnessed people being injured or dying, or you may have experienced physical harm yourself.
Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include recurring memories or nightmares of the event, sleeplessness, loss of interest, and feelings of numbness, anger or irritability, or being constantly on guard, but there are many ways PTSD can impact your everyday life. Sometimes these symptoms don't surface for months or even years after the event occurred or after returning from deployment. They may also come and go. If these problems persist or they're disrupting your daily life, you may have PTSD.
“Even though I knew they were just fireworks on the Fourth of July, to me they still sounded like incoming mortars. It took me right back to my deployment…”
Some factors can increase the likelihood of a traumatic event leading to PTSD, such as:
- The intensity of the trauma
- Being hurt or losing someone you were close to
- Being physically close to the traumatic event
- Feeling you were not in control
- Having a lack of support after the event
What are the signs of posttraumatic stress disorder?
A wide variety of symptoms may be signs that you are experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. The following are some of the most common symptoms of PTSD that you or those around you may have noticed:
- Feeling upset by things that remind you of what happened
- Having nightmares, vivid memories, or flashbacks of the event that make you feel like it’s happening all over again
- Feeling emotionally cut off from others
- Feeling numb or losing interest in things you used to care about
- Feeling constantly on guard
- Feeling irritated or having angry outbursts
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having trouble concentrating
- Being jumpy or easily startled
It’s not just the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder but also how you may react to them that can disrupt your life. You may:
- Frequently avoid places or things that remind you of what happened
- Consistently drink or use drugs to numb your feelings
- Consider harming yourself or others
- Start working all the time to occupy your mind
- Pull away from other people and become isolated
What is the treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder?
If you show signs of PTSD, you don't just have to live with it. In recent years, researchers have dramatically increased our understanding of what causes PTSD and how to treat it. Hundreds of thousands of Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard have gotten treatment for PTSD and found significant relief from their symptoms.
Two types of treatment have been shown to be effective for treating PTSD: counseling and medication. Professional therapy or counseling can help you understand your thoughts and reactions and help you learn techniques to cope with challenging situations. Research has shown several specific types of counseling to be very effective for treating PTSD. Medications can also be used to help reduce tension or irritability or to improve sleep. The class of medications most commonly used for PTSD is called "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors," but a doctor can work with you to figure out which medication works best for you.
“In therapy I learned how to respond differently to the thoughts that used to get stuck in my head.”
In just a few months, these treatments can produce positive and meaningful changes in your symptoms and quality of life. They can help you understand and change how you think about your trauma and how you react to stressful memories.
You may need to work with your doctor or counselor and try different types of treatment before finding the one that’s best for dealing with your PTSD symptoms.
What can I do if I think I have posttraumatic stress disorder?
In addition to getting treatment, you can adjust your lifestyle to help relieve PTSD symptoms. For example, talking with other Veterans who have experienced trauma can help you connect with and trust others; exercising can help reduce physical tension; and volunteering can help you reconnect with your community. You also can let your friends and family know when certain places or activities make you uncomfortable.
“I wanted to keep the war away from my family, but I brought the war with me every time I opened the door. It helps to talk with them about how I feel.”
Your close friends and family may be the first to notice that you’re having a tough time. Turn to them when you are ready to talk. It can be helpful to share what you’re experiencing, and they may be able to provide support and help you find the right treatment for you.
Take the next step: Make the connection.
Whether you just returned from a deployment or have been home for 40 years, it’s never too late to get professional treatment or support for PTSD. Receiving counseling or treatment as soon as possible can keep your symptoms from getting worse. Veterans who did not realize they had PTSD for many years also have benefited from treatment that allows them to deal with their symptoms in new ways.
You can also consider connecting with:
- Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does. If you feel comfortable enough with your physician, he or she may be able to help you find tools to manage PTSD even without direct experience with Veterans.
- A mental health professional, such as a therapist.
- Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.
- A spiritual or religious adviser.
In addition, taking a self-assessment can help you find out if your feelings and behaviors may be related to PTSD. This short list of questions won’t be able to tell you for sure whether you have PTSD, but it may indicate whether it’s a good idea to see a professional for further assessment. If you believe you may be living with PTSD and are ready to take the next step, find a professional near you who may be able to help.
Explore these resources for more information about Veterans experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder.
Understanding PTSD Treatment Booklet
This eight-page booklet explains in detail the various ways to treat PTSD effectively and debunks some myths about treatment.
National Center for PTSD
This website provides information, resources, and practical advice for Veterans, their family and friends, and the public when dealing with trauma.
VA's PTSD Program Locator
VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.