Facts about Traumatic Stress and PTSD
1. What is a traumatic event?
An event is considered traumatic if the person experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013).
2. What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Posttraumatic stress disorder, diagnosed by a registered psychologist, is a psychological reaction that can manifest itself after a traumatic event. Symptoms must last more than 30 days for a diagnosis of PTSD to be considered.
A person who develops PTSD will display four types of symptoms:
- Intrusions, including continually re-experiencing the event through intrusive thoughts or unwanted dreams.
- Avoiding stimuli related to the traumatic event, either consciously or unconsciously.
- Negative cognitions or mood related to oneself or the world around them.
- Hyperarousal, including irritability, difficulty sleeping, feeling constantly on guard.
3. Is it common to have a traumatic experience?
It is estimated that 76% of Canadians report having experienced a traumatic event during their lifetime (Ameringen, Mancini & Boyle, 2008). Common events that are reported include, but are not limited to unexpected death of a loved one, sexual assault, and seeing someone badly injured or killed (Ameringen, Mancini & Boyle, 2008).
4. Is it common to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event?
It is estimated that about 8% of Canadians who experience a traumatic event develop PTSD (Canadian Mental Health Association, 2013). In Canada, the estimated lifetime prevalence rate of PTSD is 9.2% (Ameringen, Mancini, Patterson, & Boyle, 2008). The proportion varies greatly according to the type of event and the individual. Though men tend to experience potentially traumatic events more frequently than women, women are more likely to meet the criteria for PTSD (Tolin & Foa, 2006).
5. How long do the symptoms last?
The intensity of PTSD varies greatly, as does the duration, lasting anywhere from several weeks to several years. Around half of those who present with symptoms will get over them on their own within one to two years. Others will develop more chronic problems.
If you experience symptoms for 3 months or more, it is strongly recommended that you consult a therapist (see Where to Get Help?). You can also seek help earlier than this if you think it might be appropriate. PTSD is defined by the presence of symptoms that exceed one month. If the symptoms persist beyond three months, it is then a classified as chronic PTSD. However, people may also have delayed reactions and symptoms may not present themselves for 6 months or longer.
6. What other problems can people develop after a traumatic experience?
Major depression is a common problem following exposure to trauma. It is characterized by a consistently depressed mood and a loss of interest in daily activities, among other symptoms. This differs from the typical ‘’blues’’ that everyone experiences. Roughly 50% of individuals with PTSD will also suffer from depression (Rytwinski, Scur, Feeny, & Youngstrom, 2013). Other comorbid disorders may occur: anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and other health-related conditions (Brady, Killeen, Brewerton, & Lucerini, 2000).
7. Is it possible to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress a long time after the event?
Someone who has experienced a traumatic event can develop symptoms of PTSD several months, or even years later. The development of new symptoms may be triggered by a subsequent event (e.g. anniversary of the event, life transitions such as birth of a child or retirement, etc.).
8. What is resilience?
Resilience is not only the absence of post-traumatic stress after a traumatic experience, but also an individual’s ability to take something positive from adversity (Cyrulnik, 2003). An individual may display resilience to one traumatic event, while developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress to another (Damiani & Vaillant, 2003).
This information comes from:
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Ameringen, M., Mancini. C., Patterson, B., & Boyle, M. H. (2008). Posttraumatic stress disorder in Canada. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 14, 171-181. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5949
Brady, K. T., Killeen, T. K., Brewerton, T., & Lucerini, S. (2000). Comorbidity of psychiatric disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 61(7), 22-32.
Canadian Mental Health Association. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder. Retrieved October 6, 2018, from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-2/
Rytwinski, N. K., Scur, M. D., Feeny, N. C., & Youngstrom, E. A. (2013). The co-occurrence of major depressive disorder among individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder: a meta-analysis. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26, 299–309. doi: 10.1002/jts.21814.
Tolin, D., & Foa, E. (2006). Sex differences in trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder: A quantitative review of 25 years of research. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 959-992.