What are the 17 Symptoms of PTSD?
Life is unpredictable. Unfortunately, for many of us, that means that grief and trauma can arise at any time. When a person is exposed to danger, violence, illness or the threat of injury, they can potentially carry that trauma with them for years to come. In observance of PTSD Awareness Month, we would like to provide in-depth explanations of each of the 17 symptoms of PTSD.
1. Intrusive Thoughts
Intrusive thoughts are perhaps the best-known symptom of PTSD. What do intrusive thoughts look like? A person going about their day is suddenly confronted by unwelcome, distressing memories of what happened to them. This may happen in a related setting – for example, a person who has gone through a car accident may begin to panic in a vehicle – or out of the blue.
Trauma survivors regularly deal with nightmares. Research from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) has indicated that 71% to 96% of those with PTSD may have nightmares. Those with co-occurring mental illnesses are also at higher risk for vivid, disturbing dreams.
3. Avoiding Reminders of the Event
PTSD changes the way a person lives their life. One of the major effects of trauma is avoidance. For example, someone who nearly drowned will probably avoid swimming again. However, they might even avoid taking baths or going to the beach because it reminds them too much of what happened. These avoidant behaviors can be debilitating, and those who are dealing with them are encouraged to seek professional trauma treatment.
4. Memory Loss
Traumatic events impact the brain’s functioning. While many people assume that this is due to a physical brain injury, it’s frequently a case of the body attempting to cope with what has happened. The hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex are strongly associated with stress and memory. When something traumatic happens, memory loss occurs as a natural defense mechanism. Without proper treatment, these memories may resurface at any time, resulting in significant distress.
5. Negative Thoughts About Self and the World
People who have been through trauma see the world differently. They may feel hopeless and live with a “foreshortened future” – an inability to visualize future milestones or old age. It’s also common for them to see themselves in a bad light. One of the 17 symptoms of PTSD is a negative perception of the self and the world at large. Client-centered therapy seeks to build a person’s self-esteem after a traumatic incident, reassuring them that they are worthy of success and healing.
6. Self-Isolation; Feeling Distant
After something terrible happens, it’s difficult to connect with others. People with PTSD may have a hard time being around people for a few different reasons. These include potential triggers, as well as an inability to relate to their friends. If you have been through a traumatic event and feel like your loved ones just don’t understand, we encourage you to speak with a professional therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.
7. Anger and Irritability
PTSD creates a state of hyperarousal. This means that the brain is kicked into a state of “fight or flight” at the slightest urging. Hyperarousal results in strong emotions like anger, as well as general irritability on a day-to-day basis. Those who have been traumatized may lash out at others, even if they don’t fully understand why.
8. Reduced Interest in Favorite Activities
Negative life events make it difficult to enjoy once-loved activities. The mood changes, sleeplessness and avoidance associated with PTSD mean that a person might feel unmotivated and uninterested in their work and hobbies.
After a traumatic event, the body enters a state of hypervigilance. This increased alertness ensures that a person is always prepared for any other threats. However, this state of extreme awareness is exhausting and upsetting for trauma sufferers, making it among the most upsetting of the 17 symptoms of PTSD.
10. Difficulty Concentrating
Hyperarousal and anxiety also take away one’s ability to concentrate. Individuals who have undergone a traumatic event struggle to readjust at work, home and school because their minds are often elsewhere.
Insomnia is another typical symptom of PTSD. To go to bed, a person has to let their guard down, which is especially difficult for hypervigilant trauma sufferers. Additionally, the nightmares they may face at bedtime can make sleep an unattractive proposition. Many people who have experienced trauma struggle to sleep, and they may turn to alcohol or drugs in order to calm their minds. However, this approach can result in issues with substance use disorder.
12. Vivid Flashbacks
Flashbacks are different from intrusive thoughts. Those who have flashbacks may feel as though the traumatic event is happening all over again. Memories can become so vivid that they seem to be happening in the current moment. This can cause people to panic, resulting a sudden, aggressive response. They may be triggered by something as subtle as someone’s cologne or a certain tone of voice. Those who have flashbacks are encouraged to ground themselves through the five senses – naming five things they can see can be a calming distraction.
13. Avoiding People, Places and Things Related to the Event
Any reminder of a traumatic event can catalyze a flashback. That’s why many trauma sufferers become reclusive, avoiding people, places and things related to what happened. While this may make sense on paper, this behavior can actually be problematic. “Just trying not to think about it” is a coping mechanism that can actually worsen one’s symptoms over time.
14. Casting Blame
Self-blame is especially common after a traumatic event. People with PTSD may blame themselves for what happened, especially if it resulted in the injury or death of a loved one. However, they may also assign blame to others who were associated with what happened. For example, after a boating accident, the traumatized person may point the finger at the driver of the boat. They might also assign blame themselves for not calling out or warning the driver in time.
15. Difficulty Feeling Positive Emotions
Anger, sadness and guilt are the emotions primarily associated with PTSD. However, this condition also dampens a person’s ability to regulate positive emotions. Researchers have found that victims of domestic violence struggle to engage in goal-directed actions, control impulsive behaviors and accept their positive emotions while in a good mood.
16. Exaggerated Startle Response
A key aspect of hypervigilance is an exaggerated startle response. One of the 17 symptoms of PTSD is caused by the constant feeling of being “on guard.” A small noise may cause a victim of trauma to become jumpy.
17. Risky Behaviors
Finally, risky behaviors are especially common among those who have undergone trauma. Individuals with a high number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), for example, are more likely to try substances at a younger age and to develop an addiction. Combat veterans fall into this category too – they have higher levels of addiction than the general population. Risky behaviors can include drug abuse, alcoholism, unsafe sex, high-adrenaline activities and behavioral addictions (gambling, shopping, etc.). Those who are coping with their trauma through “compulsive comfort-seeking” should seek professional treatment as soon as possible.
PTSD and Trauma Treatment in Tennessee
At Cumberland Heights, we’ve been changing lives since 1966. We understand the connection between trauma, mental illness and addiction. It is our mission to help people to fully recover for life; that’s why we’ve created a curriculum rooted in proven, evidence-based modalities. Contact us for more information about our approach to trauma treatment.
Learn More About PTSD
- Causes of PTSD
- How PTSD is Treated
- PTSD Statistics Among Veterans
- Co-Occurring PTSD + Substance Use Disorder
- Trauma, PTSD + Addiction Link