Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referenced as PTSD, is a mental health condition involving increased anxiety and fear reactions due to a traumatic event. This mental health problem can occur in anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as soldiers in a warzone, victims of a natural disaster, and survivors of assault, rape, or other serious situations.

Symptoms of PTSD are typically grouped into four categories: avoidance, intrusive memories, negative changes in mood or thinking, and changes in emotional reaction. Re-experiencing symptoms, avoiding or numbing symptoms (including with intoxicating or addictive substances), or symptoms of emotional arousal (such as anxiety) are all part of PTSD.

As PTSD is becoming better understood, more therapists are better able to treat people who struggle with this mental health condition. To treat a person who is struggling with PTSD, it is important to understand how the condition is diagnosed. This involves meeting criteria as outlined in the DSM-5.

Criteria for Diagnosing PTSD

The DSM-5 is the latest diagnostic manual used by psychological professionals to accurately diagnose and treat their patients. The following list of criteria helps psychologists understand and diagnose PTSD. A person must struggle with at least one symptom of re-experiencing the trauma; at least one symptom of avoidance; at least two arousal or reactivity symptoms; and at least two cognitive or mood symptoms. There are other symptoms required to meet a PTSD diagnosis as well.

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Criteria A:

The individual was exposed to death, threatened with death, actual or threatened severe injury, or actual or threatened sexual assault. To meet Criteria A, the person must be exposed to one of these dangerous circumstances in one of the following ways:

  • Directly, as the victim
  • Witness to the traumatic experience
  • Learning that a loved one – such as friend or relative – was exposed to trauma
  • Indirect exposure to details of the trauma due to professional activities (e.g., law enforcement, coroner, emergency responder, surgeon, etc.)
Criteria B:

The person who suffered trauma, directly or indirectly, must re-experience the trauma persistently, in at least one of the following ways:

  • Intrusive or obsessive thoughts
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Emotional distress in stressful situations
  • Physical reactions to stressful situations

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Criteria C:

The person attempts to avoid trauma-related stimuli after the event in one of the two following ways:

  • Avoiding thinking about or feeling intense emotions
  • Avoiding places, people, objects, or times
Criteria D:

Negative thoughts or feelings that began after the trauma or got worse after the trauma, in at least two of the following ways:

  • Difficulty recalling details of the traumatic event
  • Overly negative assumptions or thoughts about oneself or the world in general
  • Blaming oneself or others for causing the trauma
  • General negativity in thoughts or emotions
  • Decreased interest in activities or hobbies
  • Feeling isolated
  • Trouble feeling positive about events, people, etc.
Criteria E:

Trauma-related reactions that begin or get worse after the trauma, manifested in at least two of the following ways:

  • Aggression
  • Irritability or mood swings
  • Risky or destructive behaviors
  • Hypervigilance of surroundings
  • Heightened fear or startled reaction to minor stresses
  • Trouble concentrating or other cognitive issues
  • Trouble sleeping

Criteria F:

Symptoms are experienced for at least one month after the traumatic event.

Criteria G:

Symptoms cause distress or impairment; for example, the person has trouble. returning to work, spending time with friends or family, or enjoying activities previously enjoyed.

Criteria H:

Symptoms are not a side effect directly caused by medication, substance abuse, or an underlying physical illness.

Getting Help for PTSD

After experiencing any trauma, psychological help is just as important as physical help, such as standard medical care. Even with the help of a therapist, a person may develop PTSD because of the severity of the event, but it can be managed with the help of a professional. If the condition is not treated or diagnosed appropriately, avoidant behaviors could include substance abuse or addiction as a way of self-medicating intense anxiety, getting sleep, relaxing, or stopping obsessive thoughts and fearful feelings. When substance abuse and PTSD coexist, co-occurring disorders are present.

If co-occurring disorders develop, it’s important to seek out a rehabilitation program that is equipped to treat both conditions. Medical detox and addiction counseling help to manage the addiction, and various therapies designed to address trauma can help to manage symptoms of PTSD.