What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

and what does “trauma” mean in this context?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, describes the experience of persistent symptoms that can affect a person after the experience of a traumatic event. While the term trauma seems to have become part of our vernacular when describing experiences of even minor stressors in our everyday lives, in the context of PTSD, trauma has a very different meaning.  With respect to PTSD, an event is considered traumatic in nature when it involves actual or threatened death, serious injury, or a threat to one’s physical integrity (e.g. sexual assault). Examples of such traumatic events may include physical assaults, sexual assaults, combat, serious accidents, domestic violence, terrorist attacks, and even natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and so on.

There are a number of ways people can be exposed to a traumatic event:

–Directly experiencing the traumatic event themselves (e.g., experiencing a major car accident);

–Witnessing such an event happening to someone else (e.g., witnessing someone else being physically assaulted);

–Feeling threatened by the possibility of such an event during a given time period (e.g., a military service member on a convoy, where there is a constant threat of attack via Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) on the road);

–Learning about something horrible that has happened to a loved one (e.g., unexpectedly receiving news that a loved one was murdered);

–Repeatedly having exposure to disturbing details of traumatic events (e.g., police officers or first responders routinely encountering bodies or remains due to the nature of the occupation).

The definition of “trauma” is somewhat flexible in order to account for the fact that people develop very distressing and debilitating symptoms following any of the above-mentioned types of exposure to these events.

Most people are exposed to at least one traumatic event over the course of their lifetime, but not everybody will develop PTSD as a result. After experiencing a traumatic event, the vast majority of people will have some stress reactions or “symptoms” as a result. These symptoms typically appear directly following the trauma, but it is possible for an individual to develop symptoms after a long period of time has passed.

For many people, the symptoms naturally decrease on their own over time. However, when the experience of symptoms continues for longer than one month, and they cause significant distress or impairment in an important area of life (e.g., work or relationships), the person’s symptoms may indicate the presence of PTSD.

Continue Reading: What are the “symptoms” of PTSD?