"I was raped when I was 25 years old. For a long time, I spoke about the rape
as though it was something that happened to someone else. I was very aware that
it had happened to me, but there was just no feeling.
"Then I started having flashbacks. They kind of came over me like a splash of water.
I would be terrified. Suddenly I was reliving the rape. Every instant was startling.
I wasn't aware of anything around me, I was in a bubble, just kind of floating. And
it was scary. Having a flashback can wring you out.
"The rape happened the week before Thanksgiving, and I can't believe the anxiety and
fear I feel every year around the anniversary date. It's as though I've seen a
werewolf. I can't relax, can't sleep, don't want to be with anyone. I wonder
whether I'll ever be free of this terrible problem."
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that can
develop following a terrifying event. Often, people with PTSD have persistent
frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb,
especially with people they were once close to. PTSD was first brought to public
attention by war veterans, but it can result from any number of traumatic incidents.
These include violent attacks such as mugging, rape or torture; being kidnapped or
held captive; child abuse; serious accidents such as car or train wrecks; and natural
disasters such as floods or earthquakes. The event that triggers PTSD may be something
that threatened the person's life or the life of someone close to him or her. Or it
could be something witnessed, such as massive death and destruction after a building
is bombed or a plane crashes.
Whatever the source of the problem, some people with PTSD repeatedly relive the trauma
in the form of nightmares and disturbing recollections during the day. They may also
experience other sleep problems, feel detached or numb, or be easily startled. They
may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate.
They may feel irritable, or more aggressive than before. Things that remind them of
the trauma may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoid certain places or
situations that bring back those memories. Anniversaries of the traumatic event are
often very difficult.
Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger flashbacks or
intrusive images. A person having a flashback, which can come in the form of images,
sounds, smells, or feelings, may lose touch with reality and believe that the
traumatic event is happening all over again.
What are all the Symptoms of PTSD?
Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of
flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially
when they are exposed to events or objects reminiscent of the trauma. Anniversaries
of the event can also trigger symptoms. People with PTSD also experience emotional
numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts
of anger. Feelings of intense guilt are also common. Most people with PTSD try to
avoid any reminders or thoughts of the ordeal. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last
more than 1 month. In severe cases, the person may have trouble working or
socializing. In general, the symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered
them was deliberately initiated by a person-such as a rape or kidnapping.
How common is PTSD?
About 3.6 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) have
PTSD during the course of a given year. Women are more likely than men to develop
PTSD. It can occur at any age, including childhood, and there is some evidence that
susceptibility to PTSD may run in families. About 30 percent of the men and women who
have spent time in war zones experience PTSD.
Who is most likely to develop PTSD?
People who have suffered abuse as children or who have had other previous
traumatic experiences are more likely to develop the disorder. Research is
continuing to pinpoint other factors that may lead to PTSD. It used to be
believed that people who tend to be emotionally numb after a trauma were showing
a healthy response, but now some researchers suspect that people who experience
this emotional distancing may be more prone to PTSD.
Do other illnesses tend to accompany PTSD?
Co-occurring depression, alcohol or other substance abuse, or another anxiety
disorder are not uncommon. The likelihood of treatment success is increased when
these other conditions are appropriately identified and treated as well.
Headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, immune system problems, dizziness,
chest pain, or discomfort in other parts of the body are common. Often, doctors
treat the symptoms without being aware that they stem from PTSD. When PTSD is
diagnosed, referral to a mental health professional who has had experience treating
people with the disorder is recommended
Ordinary events can serve as reminders of the trauma and trigger
flashbacks or intrusive images. Anniversaries of the traumatic event are often
This information has been excerpted from material developed by the National Institute for Mental Health.