5 Signs of PTSD

In the first of a two-part series, we’ll identify the 5 symptoms of PTSD and next week, we’ll talk about how healing occurs and what you can do to offer support to someone with PTSD - plus, what not to do!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #16

In sum, hyperarousal is being on constant alert.  You're always ready for attack.  In a war zone overseas or a war zone of your own household, hyperarousal is simply called being ready.  However, once you’re safe, whether that’s post-deployment or post-abuse, it can seem impossible to turn off.

Symptom #3: Avoidance.  This is a big one.   Your brain is smart and it wants to stay far, far away from anything even remotely related to the trauma.  Someone assaulted in a parking lot at night, for example, will likely stay away from all parking lots at all times.  Car accident survivors often won’t get in a car.  Victims of traumatic break-ins might move.

Avoidance isn’t limited to locations; it can also include thoughts, memories, and emotions.  For instance, many survivors can’t or won’t talk about what happened.  Others avoid trusting anyone.  Strong emotions may also be avoided—you may not be able to feel loving, affectionate, sexual, or sad; you may be unable to grieve a loss. Avoidance can also take the form of using alcohol or drugs to block out overwhelming feelings. 

See also: How Do You Know If You Have a Drinking Problem?


Avoidance is often far-reaching; to feel safe, the mind builds in a wide buffer, no matter the cost.  For example, a colleague of mine had a patient named Claire who was assaulted by a supposed friend while she slept.  As a result, Claire spent years avoiding sleep, believing it was unsafe, which made sense given her experience.  She worked double shifts, took night classes, and lived on coffee, which in our workaholic culture, no one questioned.  Only after she fell asleep while driving did she seek help and finally connect the dots.

Symptom #4: Negative thoughts and feelings.   Negative thoughts about the self and the world are near-universal in PTSD.  In order to wrap the mind around an unthinkable experience, the brain does all sorts of gymnastics: “If I hadn’t fought back, this wouldn’t have happened.” “If I had fought back, this wouldn’t have happened.”  “It’s my fault.” “I should have died instead of my buddy.” “If I look attractive, I’ll be attacked.”  “My selfishness killed him.”  “I am vulnerable at all times.”  “I can’t trust anyone ever again.” “I wasn’t worth protecting, so that’s why no one helped me.”  Negative thoughts may also take the form of questions: “What did I do wrong?”  “What did I do to deserve this?” 

Negative thoughts cause a quick slide into negative feelings.  You may withdraw from the world, feel numb, or not feel much besides anger.  It’s also common to lose interest in your life or be unable to picture a future; for example, you may believe you’ll die sooner than other people or won’t reach milestones like finding a partner, having children, or graduating from school.  Likewise, you may have a hard time feeling positive emotions, like love or joy, and lose interest in people or things that used to be important.  At worst, you may feel life isn’t worth living, wish you were dead, or try to hurt yourself.  Please, call 911 or go to the emergency room if you’re worried you can’t stay safe.

See also: 11 Little-Known Signs of Depression


Symptom #5: Dissociation.  In the most recent diagnostic rule book for mental health professionals, the DSM 5, a dissociative subtype of PTSD has been defined for the first time.  Dissociation, broadly described, is feeling detached from who you are, what is happening, or your body.  In a series of 2012 studies, 12-30% of folks with PTSD, mostly those with severe symptoms and exposure to childhood or adult sexual traumas, experienced dissociative symptoms.

Dissociation during the trauma makes it more likely that PTSD will develop, and can make it harder to treat.  Survivors who dissociated during their trauma may report feeling as if they were outside their body observing the scene, feeling as if it wasn’t really happening, or there may be blanks in their memory. 

Even well after the trauma, dissociation may occur as a symptom of PTSD, most often in reaction to triggers or stress.

There are variations on dissociation, including depersonalization, which is a feeling that you’re not real.  For example, you may have the experience of not recognizing yourself in a mirror, feel invisible, feel like a robot, or look at your hand, for instance, and think, “This is not my hand.”  There’s also derealization, or a sense that the world is not real, which may feel spacey or like a dream.

In sum, dissociation is the brain’s attempt to cope and process during a time of danger.  When the body can’t physically escape, the brain goes to extremes to get through the trauma and create emotional distance, even at a steep cost.

To wrap up, let’s circle back to Kim and Larry, both of whom, after a lot of hard work in treatment, are doing well today.  Both have up days and down days, and while the memories of their respective traumas will never be pleasant, Kim and Larry can function and move forward rather than being dragged back into the past by PTSD. 

If you recognized yourself or someone important in your life in today’s show, please seek out a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist.  PTSD should be diagnosed in person by a qualified professional.  And thankfully, PTSD is treatable.  Have courage and, just as importantly, have hope.  

Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions.  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.