• Anybody who has been exposed to a traumatic experience in some capacity can develop PTSD.
  • Symptoms of PTSD can vary from person to person, but affected individuals typically experience hypervigilance, mood changes, and loss of concentration.
  • PTSD can improve or worsen, depending on how severe the disorder is and how the individual addresses/manages the disease.
  • Therapy is instrumental in the healing process for PTSD sufferers, but self-care practices can go a long way as well.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) isn’t a simple disease. (I mean most mental health conditions aren’t, right?) But that doesn’t mean we can’t break it down for you. Here are some of the most common questions people have about PTSD, answered by therapists, doctors, and trauma experts:

1) Who experiences PTSD?

Janice Hartley, clinical counselor, explains that anyone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event can develop and suffer from PTSD: “PTSD can occur from being exposed to a traumatic event such as war, sexual abuse, natural disaster, a car accident or terrorist attack. It can also occur from a threatened traumatic event such as a threatened physical or sexual assault or from witnessing a traumatic event. It can also occur upon hearing that a close friend or family member experienced a violent act or accident.”

2) Do all PTSD victims experience the same symptoms?

Erik Larson, a psychiatric nurse practitioner with experience treating PTSD in the army and civilian world, says that the PTSD experience can vary: “PTSD has a number of symptoms, but not all people with PTSD experience the same things. Common feelings include feeling keyed up or on edge all the time. Feeling like there is some vague threat or danger present all the time, even if a person rationally knows that this isn’t the case (this is called hypervigilance). There are mood symptoms similar to depression that can include losing interest in things they normally enjoy, inability to experience positive emotions like happiness, feeling like they are unable to connect with others or feeling separate. They may feel irritable all the time and get angry very easily, struggle with focus and concentration, and be jumpy or startle really easily.”

3) Does PTSD get better or worse over time?

Nancy Irwin, a doctor of clinical psychology and trauma expert, says that “without intervention (and of course the sooner the better), PTSD symptoms can ebb and flow for years. Every individual case is different, and unresolved trauma that has been swept under the rug will fester and demand attention at some point. This is why some people appear to just snap after many years of apparently living normally. With intervention, one can process their normal responses and feelings to abnormal experiences, apply healthy coping skills, and get to a place of acceptance. They will be able to talk about the experience in a narrative form, like a journalist would, without the emotional or physical charge of symptoms.”

4) Does PTSD ever go away?

Licensed Clinical Social Worker Joyce Stewart says it simply depends on how you treat it. “Many people will go on medications to help manage the symptoms of fear and anxiety, but if they ever go off the medications, the PTSD will usually flare up again. Many people who go through traditional counseling will get insight into how they developed PTSD and learn different ways to manage the symptoms so they can cope with everyday life better. People who use more non-traditional forms of therapy such as energy treatments have a much higher chance of healing from PTSD. This is because energy based treatments can access the subconscious mind and reprogram it. Healing also depends on the mindset of the client. If they want to remain a victim, they will not be healed, no matter what methods you use.”

5) What’s the key to healing from PTSD?

Emily Mendez—a published mental health writer, expert in psychology, and former private practice psychotherapist—explains how therapy is instrumental in PTSD recovery: “Common treatments for PTSD include cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, exposure therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves changing maladaptive thoughts about the trauma. It also involves changing the way that a person copes with the trauma. Acceptance and commitment therapy or ACT encourages people to try to accept pain rather than avoid it, and live a meaningful life again.” That being said, healing isn’t limited to work with a therapist. Mendez goes on to explain how joining a support group and exercising can provide additional benefits: “One way to cope with PTSD is to join a support group. PTSD can make you feel detached from other people. Joining a support group can help you connect with and support others. Another way to enhance healing is to exercise, which can release endorphins and improve your mood.”