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PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)

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For much of its history, PTSD was thought to be a physical condition caused by the challenges of war. During the American Civil War, the condition was called “soldier’s heart” or “Da Costa’s syndrome” (named after the Union surgeon who held the first scientific inquiry of PTSD). In WWI, it was called “shell shock” and blamed on percussive blasts from explosions. In WWII, it was called “battle fatigue.” PTSD didn’t become an official mental health diagnosis until 1980, when the third edition of the DSM was published.

One of the DSM-5’s criteria for PTSD is that someone must have been exposed to (or threatened with) death, injury, sexual violence, or severe harm of a loved one. This traumatic event causes four kinds of symptoms: reexperiencing the trauma, avoiding reminders, hyper-arousal, and negative mood. The condition is typically associated with veterans, but all kinds of people can develop PTSD, including but not limited to survivors of accidents, hate crimes, and sexual assault. When a traumatic encounter involves racism, the symptoms that can result are called race-based traumatic stress (RBTS). 

PTSD has become a common term in everyday, casual conversation — for example, when people joke about feelings of distress with statements like “That movie gave me PTSD.” Using the term as an exaggeration blurs the boundary between everyday difficult experiences and the clinically diagnosable mental health condition of PTSD. Alternatives could be phrasing like “I’m still feeling jumpy after that movie.” Also, a person’s symptoms of PTSD might not be immediately apparent, but that does not mean their condition is mild or okay to refer to lightly.


In recent years, there has been a push to acknowledge the unique impact of chronic, recurring trauma, since affected individuals may not meet all of the above criteria for PTSD and can experience symptoms of their own. C-PTSD is not included in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the handbook clinicians use to classify and diagnose mental health conditions. 

Unlike the singular, specific trauma in PTSD criteria, C-PTSD is caused by long-term, pervasive trauma, such as child abuse or racial oppression. Complex trauma involves multiple kinds of stressors overlapping and reinforcing each other, creating cumulative harm that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. 

Some C-PTSD criteria overlap with PTSD’s, including reexperiencing memories, avoidance of triggers, and hyper-arousal. But C-PTSD has three additional types of symptoms. The first is a persistently negative self-concept — thinking of oneself as “broken” or blaming oneself for not overcoming hardship. The second is difficulty with relationships. Often individuals will avoid getting close to others or have difficulty maintaining bonds long-term. The third is emotional disturbances — either having intense, hard-to-control emotions or very blunted ones.

When writing about PTSD or C-PTSD, it’s helpful to treat any specific trauma on its own terms rather than compare. Classifying certain traumas as more “real” or “serious” than others can make survivors ashamed of their symptoms or feel like they don’t deserve help. 

Additional resources


PTSD is a mental health condition caused by trauma. It can have profound effects on memory, mood, social relationships, and daily functioning. People will sometimes use the term PTSD when they are joking about distress (e.g., “That movie gave me PTSD”). Doing so can blur the boundary between everyday experiences of discomfort and the serious mental health condition of PTSD.