information and resources for military families

Common Symptoms of PTSD

by Karen Pavlicin

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is a complex health condition that can develop in  response to a traumatic experience, usually a life-threatening or extremely distressing situation, such as combat, a natural disaster, car accident, or sexual assault, that causes a person to feel intense fear, horror, or a sense of helplessness.

PTSD can affect a person of any age, race, gender, or job. While there are many instances of PTSD outside of military life, service members in combat and first-responder roles are generally exposed to more potentially-traumatic situations.

Col. Bob Stewart, former chief of the Department of Behavioral Health at Fort Belvoir explains that PTSD can manifest within days of a traumatic experience or take years to emerge. “Victims of other traumatic experiences, such as rape, are usually quicker to diagnose. When they relive the trauma, it is not the norm for their daily life so it usually stands out immediately,” he says. “In combat situations, after a trauma has occurred, we send our troops right back into the environment in which the trauma was experienced. … Avoidance symptoms are coping mechanisms…within that environment. … But when the soldier returns home, the symptoms are not typically accepted by spouses and others. Suddenly it’s a different environment and that’s often when the realization of what has happened starts to catch up with the combat veteran. It often takes service members between six months and two years before they seek treatment for PTSD.”

Common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reliving the experience
    > unwanted recollections or flashbacks to the threatening experience, nightmares, triggers that cause you to feel like you’re reliving the experience
  • Overall anxiety
    > nervousness, always feel on guard, easily startled, always looking for an exit; anxiety symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing
  • Emotional withdrawal
    > emotional distance from other people, problems with intimate relationships,
    loss of interest in regular activities, depression, suicidal thoughts
  • Significant changes in daily routines or health
    > trouble sleeping, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, loss of memory, unexplained illness
  • Difficulty coping in a healthy way
    > overuse of alcohol or drugs, addiction, survivor’s guilt, unexplained anger or rage

It’s normal to be upset, feel anxious, or have trouble sleeping after a traumatic event. But if you or a loved one experience severe or ongoing symptoms, please talk with a doctor, chaplain, or counselor.

If you are in crisis: call 911, go the nearest emergency room, or call the Suicide Prevention Line 1-800-273-8255 (Veterans press 1).

Karen Pavlicin is the author of Life After Deployment: Military Families Share Reunion Stories and Advice, which includes more information about PTSD in the chapter “Stress and Other Things We Worry About.”

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