It’s easy to confuse post-traumatic stress (PTS) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to sharing similar names, there’s considerable overlap in symptoms between the two conditions. However, there are significant differences in symptom intensity, duration and treatment.
PTS is a common, normal and often adaptive response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. Common occurrences, like car accidents, can trigger PTS, as well as more unusual events, like military combat or kidnapping. Almost everyone who experiences a scary situation will show at least a few signs of post-traumatic stress.
- PTS Symptoms: Although they can be momentarily intense, symptoms of PTS usually subside a few days after the event and won’t cause any prolonged meaningful interference with your life. If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress, you may notice:
- Heart racing
- Shaky hands
- Body sweats, feeling clammy
- Feeling afraid or nervous
- You avoid certain situations (usually involving the activity related to your traumatic event)
- Bad dreams about the event
- PTS Treatment: Since post-traumatic stress is not a mental disorder, treatment is not required as the symptoms will likely improve or subside on their own within a month. However, you should talk to a health care provider if you feel troubled by your symptoms; if they’re interfering with your work, school or relationships; or if you’re engaging in reckless behavior such as drinking or using drugs to cope with symptoms.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
The medical manual used to diagnose mental health concerns describes PTSD as a clinically significant condition with symptoms lasting more than one month after exposure to a trauma that causes significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
PTSD can occur after someone is exposed to a traumatic event such as combat, a terrorist attack, sexual or physical assault, a serious accident, a natural disaster, childhood sexual or physical abuse, or threat of injury or death. Trauma exposure may happen through directly experiencing the event, witnessing the event, or in certain circumstances, learning the details of traumatic events that happened to others.
It’s still not completely understood why some people who are exposed to traumatic situations develop PTSD while others don’t.
- PTSD Symptoms: Most people who experience traumatic events will have a reaction soon after. However, PTSD can have a delayed onset with symptoms appearing six months to many years after exposure to trauma. Although some of these symptoms sound similar to PTS, the difference is the duration and intensity -- symptoms that continue for more than one month, are severe and interfere with daily functioning are characteristic of PTSD. Common symptoms include:
- Reliving a traumatic event through nightmares, flashbacks
- Fixating or constantly thinking about the event
- Avoiding situations or people that remind you of the event
- Negative thoughts or emotions
- Constantly feel jittery, nervous or “on edge”
- PTSD Behaviors: Behaviors that indicate professional intervention is needed may include:
- Drinking or smoking more to reduce anxiety or anger
- Aggressive or nervous driving -- service members who have experienced combat can be especially nervous driving under overpasses and past litter on the roadside
- Being wary of crowds (showing reluctance to go to movie theaters, crowded stores, or nightclubs)
- Avoiding combat-related news or getting angry at the reports
- PTSD Treatments: Certain medications and therapies are widely accepted by health care providers as effective treatments for PTSD. Read about different treatment options on our “PTSD Treatment” page.
PTSD and TBI
A person who has sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) is at greater risk for PTSD and depression. PTSD may result from the psychological impact of the same incident that caused the TBI, for example: car crash, fall, blast exposure or blunt trauma to the head.
To learn more about PTSD:
National Center for PTSD under the Department of Veterans Affairs has information for veterans, service members, families and providers.