Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quiz: Can You Reverse PTSD?

What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an emotional illness that that is classified as an anxiety disorder and usually develops as a result of a terribly frightening, life-threatening, or otherwise highly unsafe experience. PTSD sufferers re-experience the traumatic event or events in some way, tend to avoid places, people, or other things that remind them of the event (avoidance), and are exquisitely sensitive to normal life experiences (hyperarousal). Although this condition has likely existed since human beings have endured trauma, PTSD has only been recognized as a formal diagnosis since 1980. However, it was called by different names as early as the American Civil War, when combat veterans were referred to as suffering from "soldier's heart." In World War I, symptoms that were generally consistent with this syndrome were referred to in the military as "combat fatigue." Soldiers who developed such symptoms in World War II were said to be suffering from "gross stress reaction," and many troops in Vietnam who had symptoms of what is now called PTSD were assessed as having "post-Vietnam syndrome." PTSD has also been called "battle fatigue" and "shell shock."

Complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) usually results from prolonged exposure to a traumatic event or series thereof and is characterized by long-lasting problems with many aspects of emotional and social functioning.

Statistics regarding this illness indicate that a low percentage of people in the United States will likely develop PTSD in their lifetime. Combat veterans and rape victims have a lifetime prevalence of PTSD. Somewhat higher rates of this disorder have been found to occur in African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans compared to Caucasians in the United States. Some of those differences are thought to be due to higher rates of dissociation soon before and after the traumatic event (peritraumatic), a tendency for individuals from minority ethnic groups to blame themselves, have less social support, and an increased exposure to racism for those ethnic groups, as well as differences between how ethnic groups may express distress. In military populations, many of the differences have been found to be the result of increased exposure to combat at younger ages for minority groups. Other important facts about PTSD include the estimate of 8 million people who suffer from PTSD at any one time in the United States and the fact that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.

Almost half of individuals who use outpatient mental-health services have been found to suffer from PTSD. As evidenced by the occurrence of stress in many individuals in the United States in the days following the 2001 terrorist attacks, not being physically present at a traumatic event does not guarantee that one will not suffer from traumatic stress that can lead to the development of PTSD.

PTSD statistics in children and teens reveal that up to 40% have endured at least one traumatic event, resulting in the development of PTSD in up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys. On average, 3%-6% of high school students in the United States and as many as 30%-60% of children who have survived specific disasters have PTSD. Most children who have seen a parent killed or endured sexual assault or abuse tend to develop PTSD, and more than one-third of youths who are exposed to community violence (for example, a shooting, stabbing, or other assault) will suffer from the disorder.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/11/2015
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