Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Background, Symptoms & Causes of PTSD

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been recognised since at least the sixth century BC, and have gone under many labels including shell shock, transient situation disturbance, combat fatigue, battle fatigue, stress breakdown and traumatic neurosis. PTSD is actually a primitive, critical survival mechanism causing an extreme anxiety response; this affects the person’s perception of safety or makes them feel helpless.

It is the individual person’s subjective emotional experience, rather than the objective facts which determine the traumatic event. Traumatic events are more likely to cause PTSD when they involve a severe threat to a person’s life or personal safety. The more extreme and prolonged the threat, the greater the risk.

Traumatic events which can lead to PTSD include war, natural disaster, car or plane crash, terrorist attack, rape, kidnapping, violent assault and sexual or physical abuse.


The condition can also affect not only those who personally experience it, but also those who witness it and those who subsequently pick up the pieces; including emergency workers and police officers. Symptoms may appear within hours or days of the event, or may take weeks, months or years to develop and can often get worse. They may also arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time.

The dominant features of PTSD are:

  • Emotional numbing, i.e. emotional non-responsiveness

  • Irritability

  • Hyper-arousal, i.e. on constant alert for danger

  • Re-experiencing of the trauma through flashbacks and intrusive emotions.