What is PTSD?

Carlos Lemus, LCSW
June 15, 2022
(5 mins read)
Mental Health

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs after direct or indirect exposure to a stressful or terrifying event. This may involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.  Unlike Acute Stress Disorder, a condition in which symptoms of trauma exposure occur immediately after the event and resolve within a month, symptoms of PTSD must be present after a month of the traumatic event for a mental health professional to provide a diagnosis. Some people with PTSD may not experience symptoms until years after exposure to trauma and most people will not develop the disorder (1). 

Among those who will experience it, the intensity of symptoms varies within the duration of the condition and tends to cause impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of daily functioning. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) classifies PTSD symptoms into the following 4 categories: Intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions.

The category of intrusive memories is perhaps the most recognizable type, as it may involve unwanted memories, flashbacks, bad dreams or nightmares, and severe emotional distress to reminders of the traumatic event.

The category of avoidance may include a) efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings of the traumatic event; and b) efforts to avoid external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations) that arouse distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings about or related with the traumatic event. (DSM).

Negative changes in thinking and mood involves symptoms that lead to self-blame for the event and emotional and personal detachment from social support networks. Symptoms include:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb

Changes in physical and emotional reactions is a category of symptoms that may exacerbate the trauma due to its hypervigilant nature.

Symptoms include: 
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame

People respond to trauma in different ways. Some have a high level of resilience and protective factors that lead them to cope better or to experience minimal symptoms of a traumatic event, while others may experience intense symptoms when faced with similar events.  

Protective factors consistently correlated to positive outcomes after exposure to trauma are: Social support, adaptive coping, optimism, trait resilience, self-efficacy, and secure attachment (2).

There are some risk factors that increase the possibility of developing PTSD, such as childhood trauma; exposure to bullying, verbal and physical harassment, domestic violence; seeing someone get hurt or die; lack of social support; history of mental illness or substance abuse; low self-esteem; history of depression or anxiety; or ongoing stressors after the traumatic event that reinforce the trauma. 

People who are in vulnerable situations such as minorities and the LGBTQIA+ tend to suffer from verbal and physical harassment that puts them at a higher risk of PTSD and, on many occasions, it can go undiagnosed and untreated. 

Seeking support and types of treatment

People who experience disturbing thoughts about a traumatic event, or who feel that they need to find some control in their life due to interference in their daily functioning, are encouraged to seek treatment as soon as possible. Early intervention prevents PTSD symptoms from worsening.  

The American Psychological Association (APA) strongly recommends 4 types of treatments based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an approach that focuses on modifying thinking patterns through strategies that focus on education about symptoms, teaching skills to help identify the triggers of symptoms, and enhancing skills to manage the symptoms, among others (3). 

These 4 interventions are: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Cognitive Therapy, and Prolonged Exposure. It is important to recognize that, given a person’s unique life experiences and risk and protective factors, there is no specific treatment that will work for everyone. Survivors of trauma, in collaboration with a mental health professional, will explore and find a treatment intervention that will be effective to their unique presentation. If you or anyone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms you can reach out to Kiira’s professional network of experts that can help you assess your symptoms and provide treatment.

PTSD may increase the risk of other mental health conditions or exacerbate current conditions, such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse issues, or suicidality. 

Here are some recommendations to get you started in treating your PTSD symptoms: 

  • Use your immediate social support network and reach out to a friend or loved one you trust. 
  • Reach out to your faith community by contacting a spiritual leader.
  • Make an appointment with a mental health professional or a doctor, use our app to find a therapist 
  • In case of suicidal thoughts use the suicidepreventionlifeline.org lifeline 

Kiira is here to help. Learn more about our options and how you can easily access a therapist you can trust!


  1. www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd
  2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.735870
  3. www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral)