Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Definition and Explanation

In this article we will look at the post-traumatic stress disorder definition in order to identify exactly what’s going on in the brain, what causes the condition and who is at risk. Does post-traumatic stress affect people other than war veterans? And what should you do if you’re going through it?

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The most basic post-traumatic stress disorder definition would be to say that it is an ongoing extreme stress response to a traumatic event that occurred more than three months ago.

The stress response is characterized by elevated heart rate and blood pressure, tensing of the muscles, increased focus and attention and difficulty in relaxing and sleeping. This normally occurs as an immediate response to perceived threats – for instance if you’re in a fight or you’re giving a public talk then you might encounter these symptoms which could cause you to shake or to freeze up.

Normally this stress subsides over time. In other cases it might be prolonged as in the case of ‘chronic stress’. In post-traumatic stress disorder however the acute symptoms of stress will return whenever the individual is reminded of the event. They might try to avoid anything that they associate with the initial cause of stress and they will possibly experience flashbacks, nightmares, cold sweats and other extreme symptoms long after what caused the problem is gone.

The post-traumatic stress disorder definition is a little different from the chronic stress disorder. Chronic stress is caused when a stressor remains present over a long period of time – even if that stressor is something abstract like concerns over your financial wellbeing. This causes mild but long-term effects of stress such as difficulty relaxing, poor digestion and anxiety.

On the other hand, post-traumatic stress disorder is what happens when the cause of stress is so intense and severe that it returns over and again even once the individual has removed themselves from the situation.

Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

To get a better understanding of this post-traumatic stress disorder definition, it may help to look at some of the potential causes.

Common events that lead to PTSD then include:

  • Warfare
  • Physical or mental abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual assault
  • Personal injury
  • Severe illness
  • Witnessing a traumatic event

When the individual encounters these events, they will then experience a sudden and severe release of adrenaline and norepinephrine. These are stress hormones that are normally associated with the fight or flight response, but in the case of PTSD there will have been an exaggerated response owing to the severity of the trauma.

As a result, the lasting impression will be much more severe. Stress hormones have the effect of making us cement memories much more firmly which is an evolutionary directive that prevents us from exposing ourselves to dangerous situations repeatedly. When the stress response is exaggerated, this means that the mental patterns that get impressed upon us will also be exaggerated, as will the association that we carry between that memory and the negative feelings going forward.

This stronger impression on our brain then means there will be more strong neural connections that act as ‘in-roads’ to that memory and that the memory will be far more accurately imprinted on our mind – as with a ‘flash bulb memory’. At the same time, the strong association means that when we do remember it, we will experience a sudden rush of those hormones that we associate with stress. That’s why PTSD victims will be forced to constantly relive events they went through. That is why nightmares and flashbacks are such an important part of the post-traumatic stress disorder definition.

Some individuals will be more prone to PTSD than others. Reduced cortisol and serotonin for instance have been associated with an increased likelihood of suffering from the condition.


If you suspect that you may be going through these symptoms then it is highly advisable that you see your GP. PTSD is correlated with depression as well as with substance abuse and can have a myriad of negative effects on your quality of life as well as that of your family and friends.

Treatments for PTSD include therapy which can help you to change the way you think about the events and respond to them, as well as medication which can provide short term relief by increasing the amount of serotonin and GABA in the brain which have a calming effect. The use of antidepressant medication is not however recommended as a long-term solution owing to the associated side effects and potential risk of addiction.

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