If you have gone through a traumatic event, it is normal to feel many emotions. These include distress, fear, helplessness, guilt, shame and anger. You may start to feel better after days or weeks. Sometimes, however, these feelings don’t go away. If the symptoms last for more than a month, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and should seek treatment.

When people suffer traumatic injuries from a gunshot wound, a motor vehicle crash or other source, the Trauma Psychology Program at Froedtert Hospital offers specialized expertise to help them cope with the traumatic incident, as well as the aftereffects of their injuries, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The program is the only one of its kind in Wisconsin.

PTSD may occur after someone is exposed to an extreme traumatic event that poses a threat of death or serious injury to him or herself or others. This can include seeing someone else go through a traumatic event or hearing about the sudden or violent death of a loved one. PTSD is a real problem that can happen to anyone at any age. If you have PTSD, you are not alone. It affects nearly 8 million American adults.

Risk Factors for PTSD

Anyone who was a victim, witnessed or has been exposed to a life-threatening situation can get PTSD. Examples include:

  • Survivors of violent acts, such as physical attacks, domestic violence, rape and sexual, physical and/or verbal abuse
  • Survivors of sudden dangerous events, such as a car crash, natural disaster or terrorist attack
  • Combat veterans or civilians exposed to war
  • People who have heard of or experienced a sudden death of a friend or relative
  • Emergency responders who help victims during traumatic events
  • Children who are neglected and/or physically, sexually or verbally abused.

PTSD Symptoms

Most trauma survivors experience many normal responses. For some, their personal resources and capacities may grow, and their relationships may strengthen. Many trauma survivors, however, experience reactions during and after trauma that concern them. This is especially the case when the event was caused by human action or included horror or loss of life. There are numerous PTSD symptoms.

Repeatedly thinking about the trauma. You may have thoughts about the trauma even when you don’t want to. You might also have nightmares or flashbacks about the trauma or may become upset when something reminds you of the event.

Being constantly alert or on guard. You may be easily startled or angered, irritable or anxious (especially when thinking about the traumatic experience) and focused on staying safe. You may find it hard to concentrate or sleep. You may also have physical problems like constipation, diarrhea, rapid breathing, muscle tension or rapid heart rate.

Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may not want to talk about the event or be around people or places that remind you of the event. You also may feel emotionally numb, detached from friends and family, and lose interest in activities.

Other PTSD symptoms include:

  • Panic attacks: a feeling of intense fear, with shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, nausea and racing heart
  • Physical symptoms: chronic pain, headaches, stomach pain, diarrhea, tightness or burning in the chest, muscle cramps or low back pain
  • Feelings of mistrust: losing trust in others and thinking the world is a dangerous place
  • Problems in daily living: having problems doing your job, at school or in social situations
  • Substance abuse: using drugs or alcohol to cope with the emotional pain
  • Relationship problems: having problems with intimacy or feeling detached from your family and friends
  • Depression: persistent sadness, anxious or empty mood, loss of interest in once-enjoyed activities, feelings of guilt and shame, hopelessness about the future or other symptoms of depression
  • Suicidal thoughts: thoughts about taking one’s own life; if you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

After the end of a traumatic event, if these normal experiences do not slowly improve, if they worsen with time, or if they cause difficulties in relationships or work, it is helpful to find professional support. People considering therapy should select a trained mental health professional who is knowledgeable about trauma.