Historically, trauma referred to exceptionally horrific events like torture or abuse that you personally experienced. But over the last few decades, mental health professionals have to come to recognize that trauma can include a vast continuum of experiences.
So how do you know whether you or a loved one is experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a related stress disorder?
The International Society for Trauma Stress Studies defines trauma as “shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threaten[ed] death, serious injury, or threat to physical integrity.” As you can see by this definition, the mental health community now recognizes that witnessing violence or threats of violence towards others also meets the definition of a traumatic event. This reconceptualization means there are most of us will be exposed to at least one traumatic event over the course of our lives.
But if most of us experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives, why is it that only some people have PTSD?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5th Edition (DSM-5), a diagnosis of PTSD includes the following:
- Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
- Intrusive symptoms following the event, such as flashbacks, recurring dreams, or strong bodily reactions when exposed to triggers related to the event.
- Avoidance of things that remind you of the event.
- A negative change in thoughts or mood following the event.
- Feeling hypervigilant or highly aroused (e.g., easily started, feeling “on edge,” difficulty sleeping) following the event.
If you or your loved one does not experience all these symptoms, they most likely do not have PTSD.
But don’t be mistaken… someone may not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, but they may still experience posttraumatic stress.
For example, Acute Stress Disorder may occur immediately after exposure to a traumatic event but generally resolves within 1 month. Symptoms that persist beyond that benchmark are likely to be more appropriately labeled as PTSD.
The key to appropriate diagnosis and treatment is time. Getting into treatment soon after a traumatic event may lead to a better prognosis. Whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD or another stress-related disorder, there is always room to work on improving your health and liberating yourself from painful, traumatic experiences. So reach out to someone today and start your journey!