Checklist of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms for non-professionals

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 03-07-2015 | Modified: 19-10-2017

Are you suffering from PTSD or post-trauma stress?

I've listed below the 'post traumatic stress disorder' symptoms you may be experiencing if you've been involved in, or witnessed, a traumatic event.

If you suffer from these PTSD symptoms, please don't jump to the conclusion that you therefore have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder! Do read the rest of the pages in this series of articles, so that I can help you to understand what may be going on for you and whether trauma counselling can help.

Perhaps I can reassure you enough so that you don't even need to find out whether or not you need any treatment.

Please note: I've written all of my pages with terms that are more likely to relate to everyone. These terms may not always be those a professional would use.

So, let's start with a PTSD test for common symptoms...

Field of poppies - international symbol of remembrance. Remembering those who lost their life fighting for freedom. This article is for veterans who return traumatised.The poppy is the international symbol of remembrance.

10 Common symptoms of PTSD

  1. Images of the traumatic event coming to mind against your will
  2. Recurrent nightmares - you may even delay going to bed, feeling fearful of sleep, until you're absolutely exhausted 
  3. Flashbacks - suddenly feeling as if you were in the middle of the event again - reality just disappears (one of the most distressing PTSD symptoms)
  4. Intense distress when confronted with reminders of the trauma; you feel out of control of your feelings
  5. Stress, anxiety and panic
  6. Avoiding anything associated with the event, for example - can't watch that programme, go down that road, read a newspaper, watch a news bulletin - just in case...
  7. Inability to recall significant parts of the trauma
  8. Feeling detached from others as if you're trapped in a bubble and can't connect with people
  9. Feeling numb (see above)
  10. Having little interest in the things you used to enjoy - you feel like you just can't be bothered

Free download

Free printable DSM-5 list of PTSD symptoms PDF

These symptoms, however distressing, are normal immediately after a traumatic event. No trauma therapy needed in this instance.

I'd only be concerned for you so quickly after the trauma if you had an acute stress reaction. This would be a continued overwhelming feeling of panic with a high level of distress. You'd feel your heart thumping and your breathing would be shallow and fast.

In this case some early mental health counselling would be a good idea.

What exactly is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

The diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder needs to be made by a mental health professional.

PTSD is diagnosed by way of an assessment with the use of a recognised questionnaire. Examples include the Impact of Events Scale or the Post-Trauma Check List. A face-to-face consultation would also take place.

The results are then measured against the specific criteria set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSMv).

However, as a counsellor, it matters much more to me how distressed you are. How the PTSD symptoms are affecting you personally is more important than whether or not you fit the precise label of PTSD.

I do appreciate, though, that in some cases the diagnosis can be really important as it may enable you to access appropriate services much more quickly. Also your insurance or health service may then cover the cost of treatment.

Watch this video to learn more...

How quickly will you recover after an incident?

'Post traumatic stress disorder' symptoms largely subside within a matter of days after the incident. More severe symptoms take a bit longer to subside, and may do so very gradually. Most likely you'll feel much better and possibly have recovered completely after about 4 - 6 weeks.

You will need the reassurance of supportive people and familiar (safe) surroundings. I'd only advise you to seek help if your symptoms remain troublesome. For example, if they don't appear to subside, or there are residual symptoms of various degrees. In that case I'd encourage you to go to your doctor and/or ask for help from a trauma counsellor.  

If you continue to suffer from severe or acute anxiety symptoms in particular, then I'd definitely suggest you get some help sooner rather than later.

What can really help here is doing some meditation or using a hypnosis download to help you calm down sooner rather than later, and so reduce your symptoms of PTSD.

Are you suffering from an emotional trauma?

You could feel traumatised by an emotional blow because of what you've heard, witnessed or been through. The same counts: you're likely to begin to settle within a few days and you should be well on your way to recovery within a month or so. Counselling (in particular, trauma counselling) can be really helpful if you're really struggling. The definition of what 'trauma' ultimately is a very personal one.

Witnessed a traumatic event?

Witnessing a traumatic event can be just as difficult as directly experiencing a traumatic event. A witnessed incident is potentially traumatic if there's some element of it that really resonates with you, for example if it involved:

  • a child of the same age as yours
  • someone doing the same job as you
  • someone driving the same car as you
  • somone who is the same age as your brother
  • someone with similar circumstances to you, and so on

If you've witnessed a traumatic event - particularly if it involved people close to you - the above symptoms time-scale is relevant for you too.

Are you by any chance feeling guilty?

Some survivors of catastrophic events end up feeling guilty because they survived, when others didn't. Some feel guilty because they think they should/could have done more to help others. This is a known phenomenon and if you feel like that, know that you're not alone.

Let me explain.

In an emergency, your instincts take over. Your brain switches to autopilot and it - rather than you - directs operations. It's superbly capable of giving you the best possible chance of survival. A flush of hormones ensures not only your brain but your whole body is immediately prepared to run the fastest you've ever run, and become stronger than you've ever been.

Significantly, with regard to suffering from survivor guilt, during the trauma your brain ensures that it filters out all information except that which is necessary for you to escape. So, even if you'd seen people you could have helped, the urge to rescue yourself would have been overbearing.

So why do some people have the capacity to take charge, step in to help and reach out to someone else?

Simply put, those people's life experiences, genetic make-up, and their mental and physical strength and resilience have all prepared them to deal with trauma in a different way. It just is what it is!

You may find now that what you've been through (regardless of your feelings at present) gives you a completely different perspective of the world. You may have a newfound respect for life, and its meaning and purpose.

Use this post-traumatic stress disorder test to determine if you need help

If you were involved in or witnessed a traumatic event, your reaction will depend not only on what happened, but also on the time-scale.

If you've very recently been traumatised, there's every hope that you'll begin to feel better within 2 - 4 weeks, if not before. Whatever you're feeling now is very likely to be absolutely normal.

About 4 - 6 weeks following the traumatic event, trauma counselling may be helpful if several of the following apply to you*:

14 Signs and symptoms showing that you may be in danger of developing long-term psychological problems

  1. You were already stressed before the event; perhaps there were already difficulties at home or at work
  2. You've been traumatised before - in your personal or working life
  3. You felt your life was in danger - maybe because of your job, an attack, a medical emergency or an accident
  4. You wish you'd done more - for instance, in a situation where lots of other people were involved, you may feel that you could have saved someone
  5. You wish you'd acted differently - for example, you may have thoughts like: if only you hadn't done this or that, you wouldn't have been there, or someone else wouldn't have been there
  6. You feel ashamed about something
  7. You continue to feel very angry, maybe feel that someone is to blame for the event and you can't get rid of that thought
  8. You avoid being confronted with (aspects of) the event - you avoid thinking or talking about it, the people connected with it, or programmes about it and so on
  9. You have little accessible support - maybe you have friends and family, but you don't perceive them as very supportive, or maybe there are only a few people you know, like and/or trust.
  10. You feel stuck -  can't get on with your life. Even if the event happened ages ago, other people think you should have got over it by now. But to you, it seems it happened only yesterday.
  11. You can barely cope with normal, day-to-day activities - they seem so mundane in comparison with what you've been through, or you just can't concentrate on the job in hand. Maybe you feel you just don't have the energy, or just seem completely 'incapable' for some reason.
  12. You're drinking more alcohol than you would normally.  Perhaps it's helping you to get to sleep. Or maybe it helps to dampen the impact of the images, or at least slow down your constantly whirring thoughts.
  13. You smoke more - perhaps that's how you've always dealt with stress and now you need it more than ever. Maybe you're taking (illegal) drugs and/or medicine to cope with all the above.
  14. You're suffering from acute stress symptoms - you may experience panic attacks and nightmares.

*Adapted from the Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) programme initially developed by British army mental health professionals Major Norman Jones and Capt. Peter Roberts OBE (Retired), introduced into the Royal Navy and Royal Marines by Prof Neil Greenberg and Cameron March MBE Royal Marines (Retired).

Capt. Peter Roberts is still treating traumatised soldiers every day. Both Major Norman Jones and Prof Neil Greenberg are at the forefront of research into trauma and TRiM at the King's Centre for Military Health Research.

If you were traumatised many moons ago

Of course, you could have been traumatised by something that happened many months, years or even a life-time ago. Know that you too can recover! I highly recommend you seek counselling or therapy if you're still struggling with the memories.

Take a look at my page on mental health counselling if you'd like to connect with an professional, online, licensed therapist. Or, try to find someone in your own area. To learn more about what to look out for and ask from a counsellor at first contact, read my article on how to find the right therapist.

Should you be 'debriefed'?

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) states that brief single-session interventions should not be routinely offered.

Debriefing, using the Mitchell model, has been shown at best to be ineffective and at worst to be harmful for psychological trauma. This is in part because someone could potentially be re-traumatised by being made to re-experience the sights, sounds and feelings of the original incident. This type of intervention interferes with the natural healing process.

In addition, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing offered only a single intervention. There was no way of knowing how people were really doing after a potentially traumatic event. Whereas a TRiM assessment offers a baseline against which the outcome of further individual assessments can be compared.

"We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. We always have the choice."

Dalai Lama

Symptoms of PTSD or full-blown PTSD...
... but not recovering?

It's far more likely that you don't suffer from full-blown PTSD.  According to a study conducted by the Centre of Military Health Research only 5.4% of British soldiers returning from Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. However, many are left with post-traumatic stress symptoms, which can be severe - but don't fall under the exact criteria for PTSD.

The percentage number of course will mean little to you if you're personally suffering from those horrendous symptoms. However, for people that have recently been exposed to a potentially traumatic event it may be a sign that - even after such horrendous exposure - recovery as indicated above is very likely.

Post traumatic growth - can you really benefit from going through a trauma?

Regardless of your symptoms and the outcome of the PTSD test, know that I've often witnessed clients come through really traumatic circumstances or events, and the fall-out following that, absolutely shining! They've changed their perspective of the world, and not only adapted to it, but found meaning in it.  

When you've been through something life-changing, which trauma almost invariably is, it can be seen - in time - as...

...an opportunity to reassess what is and what is not really important to you.

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