Back to All
A person wearing a yellow shirt and colorful headphones around their neck leans against a wall.

Overcoming a Painful Experience: Common Symptoms of PTSD

CW: This post discusses trauma and exposure to traumatic experiences. If you or a loved one are in need of immediate help, please contact the Crisis Support Hotline at 1 (800) 811-4760 for confidential mental health services, available 24/7.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a clinical term which you may hear in everyday conversation: That breakup gave me PTSD. I still have PTSD from my last graveyard shift. My kids have PTSD from the COVID pandemic. The list goes on.

Much of what we know (or think we know) about PTSD is based on our understanding of trauma. Many significant and painful life events can seem traumatic, and the lasting impact of a conflict may feel like more than just a “funk” or a bad day. The truth is many experiences can be traumatic and people can be affected by life-changing events in very different ways. So, how can we better recognize the signs of distress in ourselves and our loved ones?

What is PTSD?

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is a serious mental health condition resulting from exposure to a traumatic event. Historically, PTSD was first observed among members of the armed forces who struggled to adjust to life at home after returning from active duty. This was also commonly referred to as “shell shock.” Professionals now recognize that PTSD can affect people from all walks of life, and not just those who have been involved in military combat.

After a distressing life event, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or exposure to gun violence, a person will have a stress response. This could include a range of emotions: from shock, anger and sadness to grief and pain. Having a stress response is part of processing a painful experience. But, if these symptoms are impacting a person’s ability to function, increasing in severity or lingering over time without improvement, this could be an indicator of PTSD.

Remember, PTSD is a potentially life-threatening condition that can only be diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional. If you or a loved one are struggling to adjust to life after a traumatic event, do not delay seeking treatment.

How Does PTSD Happen?

No two people will be affected by an experience the same way. Many different scenarios and life events can trigger PTSD. In fact, a person may experience signs or symptoms of PTSD several months or even years after a traumatic situation has initially taken place.

PTSD can be the result of a serious event, such as:

  • A car accident or other near-death experience
  • Burglary, robbery or being held hostage
  • Physical or sexual violence
  • Military combat
  • Sudden or unexpected loss of a loved one
  • Witnessing violence, either first-hand or second-hand
  • Pandemic or natural disaster, such as a tornado or wildfire

Some people are exposed to trauma on a regular basis as a result of their job — examples include first responders, police, firefighters, crisis hotline operators, case workers, emergency medical technicians, and members of the armed forces. People in these occupations may feel they are gradually becoming desensitized to trauma without realizing the toll it has taken on their overall health or outlook on life.

There are other factors that can also affect the way we process and respond to a traumatic situation, including:

  • Existing mental health conditions
  • Mental health conditions of blood relatives
  • Childhood trauma, or other exposure to past trauma
  • Substance use
  • Lack of supportive relationships

Common Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD can have many different warning signs and symptoms, which medical professionals have grouped into four specific categories:

  1. Intrusion
  • Recurring memories of the event
  • Reliving the event through flashbacks
  • Dreams or nightmares about the event
  • Severe reactions to anything that is a reminder of the event
  1. Avoidance
  • Refusing to think or talk about what happened
  • Avoiding people, places or activities that are reminders of the event
  1. Mood Changes
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Negative outlook on self, others or the world
  • Memory problems
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Withdrawing or detaching from others
  • Losing interest in hobbies and other activities
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions, or any emotion
  1. Behavior Changes
  • Easily becoming startled or frightened
  • Hypervigilance, or always being on high alert for danger
  • Destructive behavior
  • Substance use
  • Disordered eating
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Feelings of irritability, anger or aggression
  • Feelings of guilt and shame

Children who have experienced a traumatic event may show warning signs of distress which do not fit into the categories listed above, such as reenacting a traumatic event through play, or having frightening dreams or nightmares.

Getting Help for PTSD

Overcoming a traumatic experience is not easy, regardless of your career, upbringing or health history. But it is possible! There is no shame in seeking help to cope with a difficult life experience — even if you think you are being differently affected by a shared experience, like the global COVID pandemic. You ARE worthy of a life free from grief and pain, no matter what.

All people experience some kind of stress response after a traumatic event. Processing these emotions could take hours or weeks. But if your symptoms are severe, persistent or affecting your everyday life, make an appointment to speak with a mental health professional.

Healing IS possible. Life can get better.

Know that the intensity of PTSD symptoms can vary over time and may not occur immediately after a traumatic event has taken place. Symptoms may occur months or years afterwards. Without treatment, PTSD can also increase the risk of other health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, substance use and suicide ideation.

Seek immediate help if you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide.

Start Your Journey to Healing at Places for People

Places for People in St. Louis offers compassionate mental health care for adults, teenagers and children who experience PTSD after a traumatic event. Our counselors and psychiatrists use a culturally intelligent, trauma informed approach to create a safe space that is inclusive of all people. To make mental health care accessible for all those who are in need, Places for People also offers a variety of payment and coverage options for individuals who do not have insurance or who might be in need of payment assistance.

Get help for PTSD from the compassionate mental health professionals at Places for People. To schedule an appointment for adult outpatient therapy, call (314) 615-9105 Ext. 402. To speak with a member of our Youth & Family Services team about mental health care for children and adolescents, call (314) 615-9105 Ext. 292.

If you or a loved one are in crisis and need after-hours support, please call 1 (800) 811-4760 for a 24-hour Crisis Support Hotline.

This article is provided for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from a licensed health care professional. Always seek the advice of a licensed professional for any questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health, or the health of a loved one.