What Are The 17 Symptoms of PTSD?

It is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic event. Fear is part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which helps us avoid or respond to a potential danger. Individuals may experience a range of reactions after trauma, and many will recover from their symptoms over time. Those who continue to exhibit symptoms may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms of PTSD usually begin within 3 months of the traumatic event, but sometimes emerge later. Let’s look at the 17 most common 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.


2. Nightmares

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.


9. Hypervigilance

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.


11. Insomnia

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.


Trauma Informed Care

When someone comes to Cumberland Heights for treatment, they come with a wide array of knowledge, experiences, thoughts, emotions, and more. The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies reports that one to three quarters of people who have survived abuse or violent traumatic events go on to report problematic alcohol use. Since PTSD may still be lingering when a person seeks treatment for substance use disorder (SUD), it is crucial for trained professionals to have a thorough understanding of trauma and what a client needs during these times.

Oftentimes, substances are the way to seemingly “drown out” the pain experienced from PTSD. Symptoms of this order, along with stress and anxiety from other difficult situations, can make it hard to cope, especially when there are little resources to work with. Trauma informed care ensures that those in recovery are considered for all they’ve been through and can receive the most personalized care 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.