PTSD develops from an ordeal or experience(s) that threatens harm and danger. Usually the danger is to one’s self, but can also result from witnessing something awful (e.g., a mugging, car wreck, or catastrophe) or sensing danger to someone else (e.g., your child). The original experience itself is often easy to identify, especially when it occurred after the childhood years, but PTSD can also result from early life events that are not consciously recalled.
When the causal event is known, people with PTSD will typically avoid things that remind them of the fearful incident or are associated subconsciously. They are often plagued with replaying the ordeal in their minds, day (flashbacks) or night (bad dreams). They may startle easily, be irritable or aggressive, feel emotionally numb (even toward people with whom they used to be close), lose interest in things they used to enjoy, and have trouble showing affection and emotional freedom. Anniversaries -- even general seasons linked to the fear -- can be especially difficult. Depression or substance abuse often develop when PTSD is not effectively treated.
Treatment begins with establishing a secure, trusting relationship with the therapist, then sharing the details of the ordeal at whatever pace is comfortable to the patient. The goal is two-fold: to tame the event and integrate it into one’s historical reality, and to establish less anxious thoughts and feelings in general. A fairly new treatment, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), has proven to be especially effective for some trauma victims. Exposure therapy is usually helpful, cognitive-behavioral treatment is effective, and group therapy can extend the healing by further assimilating the past into the present.