What is PTSD?

After a traumatic event —like combat, an assault, or a disaster —it’s normal to feel sad, scared, or on edge at first. But if you’re still not feeling better after a few months, you may have PTSD. 

What does it feel like to have PTSD?

PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or even witnessing a life-threatening event like combat, a training accident, or sexual assault.

After this type of event, it’s normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping —but most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months. If it’s been longer than a few months and the thoughts and feelings from the event are still upsetting you or causing problems in your life, you may have PTSD.

Everyone experiences PTSD differently. Sometimes, PTSD symptoms can start months or even years after the event. Or symptoms can come and go over a period of several years. 

I trusted no one. Absolutely zero trust even in my own family. I isolated myself from life totally.”

Craig “Stu” Shipley (US Marine Corps, 1964-1968) explains how PTSD kept him from trusting people —even his own family and friends.

Some people were shooting off fireworks and one landed right on my front doorstep. I snapped and just went into kind of infantry mode. I went and got my gun and started stalking through the house.”

Brad Seitz (US Marine Corps, 2002-2005) says he realized he needed help when a Memorial Day celebration went wrong.

I felt like a freak that I couldn’t have emotions at times when other people were having emotions at things. It was easier just to stay in my own little world.”

Sarah Humphries (US Army, 1994-2012) shares how feeling numb made it hard for her to be there for her family.

Symptoms of PTSD

There are 4 main types of PTSD symptoms:

Experiencing unwanted memories or nightmares

You may struggle with upsetting memories of the event or nightmares. These memories can feel very real and scary. For some people, the experience is so vivid that it feels like the event is happening all over again. This is called a flashback

Joshua Brandon

MAJ Joshua Brandon

US Army, 2002-present

I could remember driving in Tennessee and there was a burn pit out behind somebody’s house. And probably for a good 2 minutes I was back in Iraq. My adrenaline just spiked.”

Avoiding things that remind you of the event

You may try to avoid certain people or situations that remind you of the event. For example, a combat Veteran might avoid going to crowded places like shopping malls because it feels dangerous to be around so many people. Or you might try to stay busy all the time, so you don’t have to talk or think about the event.

Valerie Ovalle

PFC Valerie Ovalle

US Army, 2004-2005

I started avoiding [people]. I even avoided my friends that I went to Iraq with for a very long time, because I knew that if I started talking to them, I would start remembering things that happened. So I basically just wanted to be alone.” 

Having negative thoughts and feelings

You may have more negative thoughts and feelings than you did before the event. Sometimes Veterans struggle with shame or guilt about the traumatic event itself. For example, some people may worry that they could have done more to help others or keep the event from happening.  

You might also feel sad or numb and lose interest in things you used to enjoy, like spending time with friends and family. It may be hard for you to feel or express happiness and other positive emotions.

Edward Baldisari

SGT Edward Baldisari

US Army, 1965-1969

I thought I was worthless. I didn’t have any friends. All my relationships were gone. I was drinking like a fool. I didn’t have any hobbies, everything I enjoyed just disappeared...for years that was like that.”

Feeling on edge

People who have PTSD often feel on edge, like it’s hard to relax. Feeling like you’re always on high alert can make it hard to sleep or concentrate on the things you need to do every day. You may find yourself getting angry or frustrated often —and if someone surprises you, you may startle easily. 

Edward Rentas

SGT Edward Rentas

US Army, 1999-2010

We had a garage door indicator. When the door is down, it’s green. And I get up at night and it’s green, and I still open the door and look. I don’t trust that thing. I don’t know why, it works perfect.”

Putting it all together

If you relate to these Veterans’ experiences or the symptoms above, it’s possible you could have PTSD. The only way to find out for sure is to talk to a PTSD treatment provider.

I didn’t know that I had PTSD, I just had all of these things going on. Once I was diagnosed, I was able to say, wow, that’s why I did that.”

Yvonne Grissett (US Army 1982-1986) says getting a PTSD diagnosis helped her make sense of things she’d been struggling with for years.