Reacting to a Traumatic Event

It’s not unusual for people who have experienced traumatic events to have flashbacks, nightmares, or intrusive memories when something terrible happens — like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and those in cities around the world (Orlando and Paris, for example) or the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, or active combat.

Be tolerant of your nervous system: It’s having a normal reaction. Try not to get hooked to news reports, which may seem particularly compelling. Spend time with loved ones in favorite activities or outside in nature, and avoid alcohol.

Learn more below, including how to help children.

Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a serious potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault such as rape, or other life-threatening events. Research has recently shown that PTSD among military personnel may be a physical brain injury, specifically of damaged tissue, caused by blasts during combat. (Research Traces Link Between Combat Blasts and PTSD)

Most people who experience such events recover from them, but people with PTSD continue to be severely depressed and anxious for months or even years following the event. Learn about PTSD symptoms.

Women are twice as likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder as men, and children can also develop it. PTSD often occurs with depression, substance abuse, or other anxiety disorders.

Relationships, Trauma, and PTSD

Trauma survivors who have PTSD may have trouble with their close family relationships or friendships. Their symptoms can cause problems with trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving, which may affect the way the survivor acts with others. In turn, the way a loved one responds to him or her affects the trauma survivor. A circular pattern may develop that could harm relationships. Read more from the National Center for PTSD.

PTSD Facts

  • 7.7 million Americans age 18 and older have PTSD.
  • 67 percent of people exposed to mass violence have been shown to develop PTSD, a higher rate than those exposed to natural disasters or other types of traumatic events.
  • People who have experienced previous traumatic events run a higher risk of developing PTSD.
  • PTSD can also affect children and members of the military: Watch a video about Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, a combat photographer who experienced PTSD. See how she got help.

PTSD brochure

Updated June 2016