Experiencing or hearing about a traumatic event or multiple traumatic events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I live in a bushfire zone near a World Heritage National Park and have experienced the impact of 2 major fires. One street from my home, 200 homes were lost to a fast-burning fire. We have lived through fire engines parking in our street to protect our home, helicopters dropping water bombs, school and property evacuations, transport gridlock, constant Police sirens and much fear. Fortunately for my family and I we did not lose our home.

Many people living in my community are heavily traumatised by the fires and are still dealing with PTSD many years after the event. I have worked with clients who have been impacted by the fires including school executives, teachers, parents, adolescents and children. Everyone is impacted in different ways, and some have experienced PTSD.

One day I met a local dog who looked quite old. I discovered that he isn’t old and had aged dramatically since the fires and every time he hears a siren, he hides in the shower recess. Perhaps he has the ‘doggy’ version of PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

It’s easy to confuse Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They share similar names and there’s considerable overlap in symptoms between the two conditions. Both PTS and PTSD are associated with feeling fearful and/or nervous, avoiding the activity or place associated with the traumatic event, and nightmares. However, there are significant differences in symptom intensity, duration, and treatment.

Post-traumatic Stress

PTS is a common, normal, and often adaptive response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event. Common occurrences, like car accidents can trigger PTS. Almost everyone who experiences a scary situation will show at least a few signs of post-traumatic stress. That’s because our brains are hard-wired to tell our bodies to tense our muscles, breathe faster, and pump more blood when we’re under intense stress. This is the “fight-or-flight” response that prepares your body to deal with a threat or challenge in the environment by pumping more blood and oxygen to your muscles, and it shuts down non-critical functions like digestion. This fight-or-flight response is a normal reflex during and sometimes even after a traumatic event, which is why PTS is considered a normal reaction and not a mental illness.

PTS Symptoms and Behaviours

If you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress, your heart may race, hands shake, you may sweat or feel afraid and nervous. After the stressful event, you might avoid or be wary of engaging in that activity again, you may have a bad dream about the event you just experienced, or you may feel nervous in a situation that reminds you of the unpleasant event. Although they can be momentarily intense, symptoms of PTS usually subside a few days after the event and won’t cause any prolonged meaningful interference with your life.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.

Getting effective treatment after PTSD symptoms develop can be critical to reduce symptoms and improve function.


Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may start within one month of a traumatic event, but sometimes symptoms may not appear until years after the event. These symptoms cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships. They can also interfere with your ability to go about your normal daily tasks.

PTSD symptoms are generally grouped into four types: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms can vary over time or vary from person to person.

Intrusive memories

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
  • Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event


Symptoms of avoidance may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event

Negative changes in thinking and mood

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb

Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Self-destructive behaviour, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behaviour
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame

For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:

  • Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
  • Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event

Intensity of symptoms

PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when you’re stressed in general, or when you come across reminders of what you went through. For example, you may hear fire engines and relive the experience of a fire disaster. Or you may see a report on the news about a sexual assault and feel overcome by memories of your own assault.

When to get help?

If you have disturbing thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event for more than a month, if they’re severe, or if you feel you’re having trouble getting your life back under control get treatment as soon as possible.

If you have suicidal thoughts

If you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts, get help right away:

  • Reach out to a close friend or loved one
  • Make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional

When to get emergency help

If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 000 or your local emergency number immediately.

If you know someone who’s in danger of attempting suicide or has made a suicide attempt, make sure someone stays with that person to keep safe. Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.

Here are some helpful numbers to call in Australia:

13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467

Beyond Blue
1300 22 4636

Causes of PTSD

You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you go through, see or learn about an event involving actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation.
PTSD is probably caused by a complex mix of:

  • Stressful experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through in your life
  • Inherited mental health risks, such as a family history of anxiety and depression
  • Inherited features of your personality and how you adjust to traumatic events
  • The way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress

Risk factors

People of all ages can have post-traumatic stress disorder. However, some factors may make you more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event, such as:

  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma
  • Having experienced other trauma earlier in life, such as childhood abuse
  • Having a job that increases your risk of being exposed to traumatic events, such as military personnel and first responders
  • Having other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Having problems with substance misuse, such as excess drinking or drug use
  • Lacking a good support system of family and friends
  • Having blood relatives with mental health problems, including anxiety or depression

Kinds of traumatic events

The most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure
  • Childhood physical abuse
  • Sexual violence
  • Physical assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Being threatened with a weapon
  • An accident
  • Medical interventions

Many other traumatic events also can lead to PTSD, such as fire, natural disaster, mugging, robbery, plane crash, torture, kidnapping, life-threatening medical diagnosis, terrorist attack, and other extreme or life-threatening events.


Post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt your whole life ― your job, your relationships, your health and your enjoyment of everyday activities.

Having PTSD may also increase your risk of other mental health problems, such as:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Issues with drugs or alcohol use
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions


After surviving a traumatic event, many people have PTSD-like symptoms at first, such as being unable to stop thinking about what’s happened. Fear, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt — all are common reactions to trauma. However, most people exposed to trauma do not develop long-term post-traumatic stress disorder.

Getting help and support may prevent normal stress reactions from getting worse and developing into PTSD. This may mean turning to family and friends who will listen and offer comfort. It may mean seeking out a mental health professional for a course of therapy including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprogramming) and EMIT (Eye Movement Integration Therapy). Support from others may also help prevent you from turning to unhealthy coping methods, such as the misuse of alcohol or drugs.

Emergency Service Workers

Emergency Service Workers are one of the high-risk groups for trauma exposure and are more vulnerable to developing mental health problems. These mental health conditions have significant impact on their employment, family/relationships, and wellbeing.
Experts are still learning more about why some of us develop PTSD, and anyone can develop PTSD after a traumatic event. This may be you or someone you know.
Factors that may contribute to developing PTSD, include:

  • Past life experiences such as childhood trauma or sexual abuse
  • Experiencing trauma over a long period of time
  • Having a job that exposes you to repeated trauma such as police, ambulance officer, firefighter or military
  • Genetic factors (family history of mental health issues)
  • Previous mental health issues like anxiety and depression
  • Brain chemistry
  • Your body’s stress response
  • Your support network (colleagues, family and friends and access to professional help).

Reacting to trauma

Traumatic stress reactions have developed in humans over time, helping us survive danger and helping us come to terms with the trauma afterwards.

We have an immediate stress response to protect ourselves from danger, and later we may try to make sense of a distressing or dangerous event by replaying it in our mind. This is a very normal way of processing things that distress us.

Once the stressor has passed, it can sometimes be hard to let go of these thoughts or our alertness to danger. That’s when it can start to interfere with our life and make it difficult to go about our everyday activities.

How do people respond to a traumatic event?

Being distressed and upset is a very normal reaction to being in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. In fact, most people will have post-traumatic feelings in the first few weeks after a terrible event.

When you are traumatised, you might:

  • Be very emotional and cry a lot
  • Feel anxious
  • Think a lot about what happened
  • Have trouble sleeping
  • Not feel like eating much
  • Feel scared, guilty or angry.

Mostly, these feelings of distress will gradually calm down in the weeks after the trauma.

In a small proportion of us, however, these disturbing memories and feelings stay. They can start to affect how we go about our everyday activities. They may develop into acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Traumatic events can trigger depression or an anxiety disorder, and not necessarily PTSD.

PTSD is a complex condition and there are several factors that ultimately affect whether someone will develop PTSD. There are also strong links between PTSD and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Rates of PTSD

While we don’t know for sure, evidence suggests that many people who have been through a traumatic event have post-traumatic stress reactions in the first few weeks after the event but for most, these feelings fade in time.

The best news here is that he majority of people who are exposed to a traumatic event do not develop PTSD.