Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is when you feel intense fear, helplessness or horror after a traumatic event.

Two friends chatting

PTSD causes and risk factors

The traumatic event can be anything which threatened your life or safety. Examples include:

  • car or other serious accident (this is the leading cause of PTSD in Australia)
  • physical or sexual assault
  • war or torture
  • disasters such as bushfires or floods.

You’re at greater risk of developing PTSD if:

  • the event involved deliberate harm such as physical or sexual assault
  • you had repeated traumatic experiences such as childhood sexual abuse or living in a war zone
  • you have a past history of trauma or previous mental health problems
  • you have ongoing stressful life events after the trauma and not enough social support.

If you have PTSD, you’re not alone:

  • around 12 per cent of Australians experience PTSD in their lifetime
  • around 6 per cent experience it in any 12 month period.

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

People with PTSD often experience feelings of panic or extreme fear. The fear may be similar to how they felt during the traumatic event.

There are 4 main types of PTSD experiences.

Re-living the traumatic event

You may re-live the event through unwanted and recurring memories. These often come as vivid images and nightmares.

You may have intense emotional or physical reactions when reminded of the event. For example, sweating, heart palpitations or panic.

Being overly alert or wound up

You may have trouble sleeping, feel irritable and find it hard to concentrate. You may become easily startled and constantly on the lookout for signs of danger.

Avoiding reminders of the event

You may deliberately avoid activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings associated with the event that bring back painful memories.

Feeling emotionally numb

You may lose interest in day-to-day activities or feel emotionally flat and numb. You may also feel cut off and detached from friends and family.

I felt like I was in this sealed glass box that just moved where I moved.

Hear Cliff's experience of PTSD after the Black Saturday bushfires on our podcast Not Alone.

PTSD symptom checklist

Only a psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder. The checklist below can help you decide whether you need to take the next step and seek support.

Part 1: Traumatic event

Have you experienced or seen something that involved death, injury, torture or abuse and felt very scared or helpless?

If yes, continue to part 2.

Part 2: Flashbacks and feelings of distress

Have you experienced any of the following since the traumatic event?

  • Upsetting memories, flashbacks or dreams of the event.
  • Feeling physically and psychologically distressed when something reminds you of the event.

If yes to both of these, continue to part 3.

Part 3: Specific emotions

Have you experienced at least two of the following since the traumatic event?

  • Trouble remembering important parts of the event.
  • Very negative beliefs about yourself, others or the world.
  • Persistently blaming yourself or others for what happened.
  • Persistently feeling negative, angry, guilty or ashamed.
  • Feeling less interested in doing things you used to enjoy.
  • Feeling cut off from others.
  • Had trouble feeling positive emotions (such as love or excitement).

If you’ve experienced at least 2 of these, continue to part 4.

Part 4: Specific behaviours

Have you experienced at least two of the following?

  • Had difficulties sleeping – such as bad dreams, trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • Felt easily angered or irritated.
  • Engaged in reckless or self-destructive behaviour.
  • Had trouble concentrating.
  • Felt on guard or vigilant.
  • Been easily startled.

If you’ve been experiencing these for one month or more, you may have PTSD.

We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Nicole’s experience with PTSD

There's times where I'm doing great and I feel like I've got a handle on things, and then there's sometimes where I just have to stop.

Hear about Nicole’s experience with PTSD.

Other conditions related to PTSD

People with PTSD may also experience other mental health issues. They may have developed directly in response to the traumatic event or have followed the PTSD. They can include:

Effective treatments for PTSD

Immediately after the traumatic event

Many people experience some of the symptoms of PTSD in the first couple of weeks after a traumatic event, but most recover on their own or with support from family and friends.

Support from family and friends is very important for most people. They can help you by reducing other stresses in your life to allow you to focus on your recovery.

If you feel very distressed in the first 2 weeks after a traumatic event, you should talk to a doctor or other health professional.

More than 2 weeks after the traumatic event

If your PTSD symptoms last more than two weeks, a mental health professional may recommend starting treatment for PTSD. 

Research shows that the most effective treatments for PTSD are:

  • eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • cognitive behaviour therapy
  • behaviour therapy (including exposure therapy)
  • online therapy (also known as e-therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy)
  • antidepressant medication – for severe PTSD and usually only after 4 weeks or more.

Learn more about Treatments for anxiety.

Should I get support?

If you feel very distressed at any time after a traumatic event, talking to your doctor or other health professional is a good first step.

It’s important to get support early. If PTSD isn’t treated it can lead to other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Not sure where to start? We can help you find the support you need at Get mental health support.

Supporting someone else

If you’re worried about someone close to you, there are things you can do to support them.

Journey to recovery - personal stories

If you have an anxiety condition, you’re not alone. 

Learn what anxiety feels like and how it can be managed.

Read and watch more personal stories about anxiety

Not fixed, not broken - Cliff’s story of post-traumatic growth

After the bushfires of 2009, Cliff Overton spent a decade trying to move on from what he had seen. Eventually, he realised he couldn’t. One traumatic day had changed him forever. And through acceptance, came growth.

Trauma and losing my coping strategy – Nicole’s story

After suffering an injury while dancing, Nicole struggled to deal with the impact of losing her greatest outlet.

References

Beyond Blue uses statistics from trusted references and research. For a full list of references for all statistics quoted on our website, please visit Statistics.