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Post-traumatic stress disorder – Guide for the public

What is PTSD?

Some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric disorder, as a result of a traumatic or life-threatening experience. This may include:

  • experience of natural disasters such as an earthquake, flood or bushfire
  • a car crash or other serious accident
  • physical injury including rape or sexual assault
  • exposure to domestic violence
  • exposure to war or other attack.

What are the symptoms?

PTSD can develop differently in different people. It can sometimes take a few hours, days, weeks or even months before the symptoms become apparent. If you have PTSD, it can affect your physical health, personal or professional life, and/or relationships with family, friends or workmates.

Symptoms may include flashbacks and nightmares that can affect sleep. Some people may avoid places, people and activities that remind them of the traumatic event or may feel emotionally numb and detached from others or their surroundings. Some may feel irritable, agitated, anxious or depressed, or be jumpy and find themselves being constantly on guard.

For most people, these symptoms are short-lived and may last for several days or a few weeks, but eventually subside. For others, however, the symptoms do not settle on their own. It is then important to seek help.

How do I find out if I have PTSD?

You might have PTSD if you have experienced a traumatic event in your life that was very frightening, horrifying or terrible and you are experiencing nightmares about what happened, thinking about the event even when you do not want to, or avoiding situations that remind you of what happened. You may also be anxious, constantly on guard, watchful, feeling numb and/or detached from others, activities or your surroundings.

There are no laboratory tests, such as blood tests or scans, to determine if you have PTSD. The only way to find out is by undergoing an assessment with a health professional – usually a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are specialists in the treatment of emotional or mental illness.

If you think you may have PTSD, the first step is to see your family doctor (GP) to discuss your concerns.

The doctor will discuss your symptoms and the problems you may be facing. You can expect to have a full medical assessment, such as having your blood taken to rule out any physical cause for your symptoms. After speaking with you, he/she may refer you to a psychiatrist for further assessment.

What type of treatment will I have?

The aim of treatment is to help you to deal with the trauma you experienced. It may involve encouraging you to recall and work through the emotions and sensations that you felt during the original event. The purpose of this is to enable you to understand and better manage your reactions to the event. The doctor may also prescribe medication to help you to manage your symptoms.

While you are undergoing treatment, it’s important that your doctor monitors your general physical health. If you are prescribed medication, they will check for any side-effects of the medication and ensure that physical or other psychological disorders are not missed.

Hear from someone living with PTSD

In this video, Prof. Malcolm Hopwood interviews Mr Norm Wotherspoon, who talks about his personal experience with PTSD and treatments. Mr Wortherspoon has also written a poem about his recurring nightmares and flashbacks.

More information

The RANZCP recommends the following guide for members of the public interested in learning more about PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): the treatment of PTSD in adults and children [PDF; 2 MB]
National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), 2005

About this link   Rather than develop its own guidelines on this topic, the RANZCP gathered a group of experts to review a range of local and international guidelines, and choose the ones best suited for use in Australia and New Zealand. Consumer and carer representatives also had extensive input.