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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Fear is a natural and healthy response to a life-threatening event. When people experience or witness danger, the body prepares to take action with the 'fight-or-flight' response. The heart rate speeds up, breathing quickens and we feel anxious and ‘pumped’, enabling us to run or combat danger. These feelings of fear normally fade away after the traumatic event.

When someone develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fear, anxiety and memories of trauma persist for a long period of time and interfere with their ability to function in life. PTSD is a treatable anxiety disorder affecting around one million Australians each year.

Traumatic experiences that involve death, serious injury or sexual violence (actual or threatened) can potentially cause PTSD. Such events include physical or sexual assault, living in a war zone, torture, and natural disasters. Everyone responds to trauma differently and although people may experience extreme distress, most eventually recover on their own. It is only a minority of people who develop PTSD after a traumatic event.

The main symptoms of PTSD are:

  • re-experiencing the trauma (memories, nightmares or flashbacks)
  • avoiding reminders of the trauma
  • negative thoughts and mood
  • increased alertness to the environment and physical response to sudden changes that could be a sign of danger.

PTSD can be a chronic and disabling condition that has a devastating impact on individuals, relationships and families. Other conditions may also develop, such as depression or substance abuse. However, with the right support and treatment, recovery is possible.

Last reviewed: November 2016

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