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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Diagnostic Criteria

written by: alexisaiger • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 3/14/2011

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can cause post traumatic stress disorder, as characterized by the symptoms shown in this article. If you feel these symptoms, please seek the advice of a qualified mental health professional to receive an accurate post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

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    Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Traumatic life events can lead to a myriad of psychological effects. One such effect is post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health states that anyone can develop PTSD at any age. Though this disorder is often related to war veterans, individuals who live through physical, emotional, or sexual abuse may also develop PTSD, as well as individuals who live through any number of events that are traumatic to them. Further, the individual need not even go through the traumatic event themselves, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Witnessing or having a close friend or family member experience a traumatic event, or facing an unexpected death of a loved one, can cause PTSD. If you or a loved one suspect post traumatic stress disorder to be impacting your life, please seek the help of a mental health professional.

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    Exposure

    A post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis can only be made after an individual has been exposed to a traumatic event. To qualify as such, the individual must have experienced or witnessed an event in which they suffered from real or threatened death or serious injury, or witnessed a threat to the physical safety of themselves or others. The response to this traumatic event must have been severe fear, helplessness, or horror. Agitated and disorganized behavior may be exhibited in children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

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    Frequent Reexperiencing of Trauma

    An individual must frequently reexperience the trauma in order for a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis to be made. The individual may reexperience the trauma through persistent memories of the event that include images, thoughts, or perceptions or may suffer from recurring dreams featuring the trauma. The individual may also suffer from sensory reenactment of the trauma where they feel as if they are reliving the event with hallucinations or flashbacks. Further, the individual may experience psychological distress or physical symptoms to cues in the environment or within the individual that resemble cues or aspects of the traumatic event. For example, if the individual is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after having been involved in a wartime situation, the sound of a car backfiring may resemble the sound of explosions from the war, thus providing an environmental cue that illicits a negative psychological or physiological reaction.

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    Avoidance

    Individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder avoid things that remind them of, or are associated with, the trauma. This is shown through attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the trauma and attempts to avoid talking about what happened, where it happened, or people associated with the trauma that may spark recollection of the event. The individual may lack the ability to recall parts of the trauma, and may show stunted emotional abilities and feel detached from others. They may have little to no interest in participating in important activities or things they once enjoyed. Also, the individual may avoid looking too far ahead in time, as they believe they have little future. To qualify for a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, the individual must meet at least three of these symptoms.

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      Increased Arousal

      An individual with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder must show two of the following symptoms on a persistent basis:

      • trouble falling and staying asleep
      • irritability or anger
      • trouble concentrating
      • hypervigilance
      • easily startled
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      Qualifying Diagnostic Criteria

      To qualify for a post traumatic stress diagnosis, the individual must suffer from persistent reexperiencing of the trauma, at least three avoidance symptoms, and at least two increased arousal symptoms for more than one month. These symptoms must seriously interfere with the daily life of the individual and cause significant distress. If the symptoms last less than three months, the disorder is considered acute, while it is considered chronic if symptoms last more than three months. Further, the diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder may be considered to have a delayed onset if symptoms occur six months or more after the initial occurence of the traumatic event.