Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

9-minute read

If a person with PTSD has feelings of self-harm or suicide, this is a medical emergency. Dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a treatable anxiety disorder affecting around 3 million Australians at some time in their lives.

It happens when fear, anxiety and memories of a traumatic event don't go away. The feelings last for a long time and interfere with how people cope with everyday life.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Everyone is affected differently by PTSD. Symptoms can range from subtle changes in day-to-day life, withdrawal and numbness, to distressing flashbacks or physical anxiety.

Symptoms of PTSD may appear in the month after the traumatic event, but sometimes they can stay dormant for years.

Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • re-experiencing the trauma
  • repetitive memories (or flashbacks) that are hard to control and intrude into everyday life
  • nightmares
  • extreme distress caused by reminders of the trauma
  • memories or disturbing thoughts that can be prompted by smells, sounds, words or other triggers


  • staying away from places, people or objects that may trigger memories of the traumatic event
  • changing a normal routine to avoid triggering memories
  • not wanting to talk about or think about the event
  • feeling numb

Negative thoughts and mood

  • feeling a sense of hopelessness about the future
  • negative beliefs about yourself or the world
  • blaming yourself or others unreasonably
  • intense worry, depression, anger or guilt
  • not being able to remember the traumatic event
  • no longer enjoying favourite activities
  • becoming emotionally detached from others
  • not being able to experience positive emotions

Increased arousal

  • constant, excessive alertness
  • scanning the environment for signs of danger
  • being easily startled
  • irritable or aggressive behaviour
  • difficulty sleeping
  • poor concentration

For a symptom checklist, visit Beyond Blue.

Children or teenagers with PTSD may have similar symptoms, but with some differences. Symptoms of PTSD in children include:

  • new onset of bedwetting when previously dry at night
  • being unusually clingy with parents or carers
  • acting out the event during play
  • forgetting how to talk
  • distressing dreams
  • being more irritable, angry or aggressive — such as having extreme temper tantrums
  • having problems with concentration
  • not being able to sleep

A teenager may experience any of the adult symptoms but may be more likely to:

  • have a desire for revenge
  • behave in a destructive, disrespectful or violent way
  • increase risk-taking behaviour

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes PTSD?

PTSD can be caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event — an event that was potentially life-threatening, or involved serious injury or sexual violence. The kinds of experiences that can potentially cause PTSD are:

  • serious accidents
  • natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and earthquakes
  • living in a war zone, as a victim of war or a soldier
  • sexual assault or threatened sexual assault
  • serious physical assault
  • seeing people hurt or killed

Although a relationship break-up or losing a job can feel devastating, these are not the kinds of events that usually cause PTSD.

Anyone can develop PTSD, but some people are at greater risk. There is probably a mixture of reasons explaining why some people develop PTSD while others do not.

Risk factors for developing PTSD include:

  • repeated trauma, such as living in a war zone for a long time
  • having had a mental illness in the past, like anxiety or depression
  • a history of trauma or abuse in early childhood
  • experiencing very severe trauma
  • not having enough support afterwards
  • extra life stresses after the trauma, such as the loss of loved ones, a home or a job
  • the type of traumatic event, with rape or sexual assault being more likely to lead to PTSD than other events

PTSD is not the only mental health disorder caused by experiencing traumatic events, and depression and anxiety disorders may be just as common. Depression, generalised anxiety, PTSD and agoraphobia are the most common disorders that can be caused by traumatic events.

When should I see my doctor?

If you or someone you know appears to be experiencing symptoms of PTSD for longer than one month after a traumatic event, it's important to talk to a doctor or other health professional.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

The doctor will do a mental health assessment. This means they will ask about current symptoms, past history and family history. They may do a physical examination to check that there are no other reasons for the symptoms.

The doctor may refer to a psychiatrist or psychologist. They will ask how long, how often and how intense the symptoms are, and what happened during the triggering event.

For PTSD to be diagnosed, the symptoms need to be severe enough to interfere with someone’s ability to function at work, socially or at home. A full diagnosis cannot be made until at least 6 months after the trauma.

Often a diagnosis can come as a relief for someone who has been suffering debilitating symptoms because it provides an explanation and a basis for beginning treatment.

How is PTSD treated?

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

For people whose symptoms last longer, PTSD is treated with psychotherapy or sometimes medicine, or both. Everyone's PTSD is different, so if you have PTSD you might need to try a few different types of treatment before you find something that works for you.

Psychotherapy for PTSD

There are different types of therapy that can be given by a psychologist or psychiatrist. You will need a referral from a doctor.

Some treatments include:

  • trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy (TF-CBT), which involves working through memories of the trauma in a safe and structured environment, trying to change unhelpful beliefs and thoughts, and gradual exposure to triggers that are being avoided
  • eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), which involves working through memories of the trauma while going through a series of eye movements

It may take between 8 and 12 psychotherapy sessions to begin to get relief from symptoms. For some people, the condition may have become chronic and can take much longer to treat. The sooner treatment begins, the better.

Medicines for PTSD

Medicine for PTSD is usually not recommended unless symptoms last longer than 4 weeks, or unless the symptoms are so bad that psychological treatments aren't working. Generally, it's best to start with psychological treatment rather than use medicine as the first and only solution to the problem.

Antidepressant medication may be recommended if symptoms do not completely go away with psychotherapy, or the person is unable to have therapy for some reason. Antidepressants can reduce anxiety and fear, depression and anger.

It's important to be aware of the possible side effects and to maintain regular contact with a doctor or mental health practitioner while you're using the medications.

Supporting someone with PTSD

Research has shown that support from family and friends is important in helping someone overcome the debilitating effects of PTSD. Couples or family therapy can help to fix damaged relationships. In some cases, family members may need to seek support of their own.

For detailed information on the most effective treatments for PTSD, see The Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

Complications of PTSD

Up to 8 in 10 people with long-standing PTSD develop other anxiety disorders, depression and/or substance abuse. Coping by trying to block out the memories with substance abuse can lead to addictions.

PTSD can prevent people from performing properly at work and make them isolated from relatives and friends. It can put great stress on families. This is why early support and treatment is essential.

Resources and support

Visit Head to Health for trusted phone and online mental health resources, including information about trauma and stressor-related disorders.

You may be able to claim some of the costs of your mental health treatments. Learn how you can do this.


SANE Australia (Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)), Beyond Blue (PTSD), (Acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorders), Phoenix Australia (Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD)

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2020

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Quick facts Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in response to traumatic situations, especially very shocking, extreme or sudden events....

Read more on SANE Australia website

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - Beyond Blue

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

Read more on Beyond Blue website

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop in people who have experienced a traumatic, life-threatening or catastrophic event.

Read more on MensLine Australia website

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - My Life After ICU

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often linked with assault survivors or military veterans

Read more on Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society website

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Sleep | Sleep Health Foundation

This is a fact sheet about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can occur after extreme stress or trauma Sleep disturbances are a symptom of PTSD, and they can exacerbate other aspects of the disorder

Read more on Sleep Health Foundation website

Post-traumatic stress disorder | Your Health in Mind

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness. It can come after an event where a person is exposed to actua...

Read more on RANZCP - The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists website

A day in the life post traumatic stress disorder | Trauma | ReachOut Australia

This audio story follows rural high school student, Sam, as he struggles with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Read more on website

Acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorders | Trauma | ReachOut Australia

Learn to look for the signs of acute stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Know how you can manage ASD to reduce your stress level.

Read more on website

How to Deal with Trauma | PTSD Explained | THIS WAY UP

Find out how to deal with trauma and understand the signs, symptoms and treatment options for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Read more on This Way Up website

MindSpot PTSD Course

The MindSpot PTSD Course can help people manage psychological and emotional symptoms resulting from trauma

Read more on MindSpot Clinic website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.