for better mental health

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Explains what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family.

What causes PTSD?

The situations we find traumatic can vary from person to person. There are many different harmful or life-threatening events that might cause someone to develop PTSD. For example:

  • being involved in a car crash
  • being violently attacked
  • being raped or sexually assaulted
  • being abused, harassed or bullied, including racism, sexism and other types of abuse targeting your identity
  • being kidnapped or held hostage
  • seeing other people hurt or killed, including in the course of your job, sometimes called secondary trauma
  • doing a job where you repeatedly see distressing images or hear details of traumatic events, such as in the emergency services or armed forces
  • traumatic childbirth, either as a mother or a partner witnessing a traumatic birth
  • extreme violence or war, including military combat
  • surviving a terrorist attack
  • surviving a natural disaster, such as flooding, earthquakes or pandemics, such as the coronavirus pandemic
  • being diagnosed with a life-threatening condition
  • losing someone close to you in particularly upsetting circumstances
  • any event in which you fear for your life.

Some people also find their experience of being sectioned or of getting treatment in a mental health ward traumatising.

"I was mugged then about a year later I was on the Tube when the police were trying to arrest someone who had a gun. In neither experience was I physically injured – although in the second one I thought I was going to die and that I was going to see lots of other people die."

Secondary trauma

If you experience symptoms of PTSD while supporting someone close to you who has experienced trauma, this is sometimes known as 'secondary trauma' or 'secondary traumatic stress'.

'Secondary' means that although the original (primary) trauma happened to someone else, the impact it's having in your life is traumatic for you. It doesn't mean it's any less significant than any other kind of PTSD, or any easier to deal with. Our page for friends and family has some tips on looking after yourself.

Repeatedly witnessing or hearing about traumatic events in the course of your job is also sometimes called 'secondary trauma', although this experience is increasingly thought of by professionals as an original (primary) trauma.

Are some people more at risk of PTSD?

Some factors may make you more vulnerable to developing PTSD, or may make the problems you experience more severe, including:

  • experiencing repeated trauma
  • getting physically hurt or feeling pain
  • having little or no support from friends, family or professionals
  • dealing with extra stress at the same time, such as bereavement, money worries, racism, seeking asylum, homelessness or spending time in prison
  • previously experiencing anxiety or depression.

If you experienced trauma at an early age or you have experienced long-lasting or multiple traumas, you might be given a diagnosis of complex PTSD. See our page on complex PTSD for more information.

"I was diagnosed by my GP with PTSD a few weeks after the death of my father who died very suddenly, following a family outing to the local pub for lunch. He collapsed in front of us and we had to administer CPR at the scene while waiting for the ambulance. He died later on the way to hospital."

Anyone can experience traumatic events, but you may be particularly likely to have experienced trauma if you:

  • work in a high-risk occupation, such as the emergency services or armed forces
  • are a refugee or asylum seeker
  • were taken into foster care.

See our pages on trauma, how to manage stress, bereavement, abuse, money and mental health, anxiety and panic attacks and depression for more information on these topics.

This information was published in January 2021. We will revise it in 2024.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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