understanding post-traumatic stress disorder

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extreme reaction to a traumatic event that can get in the way of everyday life. People experience PTSD differently.

Download our factsheet on What is a Traumatic event?

What is a single incident traumatic event?

A single incident traumatic event is something that threatens a person’s life or safety, or the lives of people around them. It’s an experience that’s stressful and has a significant impact on their emotional state.

A traumatic event might be a natural disaster or a personal traumatic event to you, or someone else.

Experiencing a single incident traumatic event might leave a person with many questions about safety and control over their life. It can be especially difficult to deal with these feelings if they’re also dealing with other changes in their life, like getting a job, managing relationships, or moving out of home.


Young people respond to traumatic events in different ways. This entirely depends on the individual, their past experiences, levels of support and the nature of the event. What happens after traumatic events are normal responses to ‘not normal’ events.

Many people affected by a single incident traumatic events are able to learn ways to manage daily, but sometimes additional support may be needed. It’s important to remember that there is no ‘right’ way to respond.

Reaching out for support whenever needed can help make things easier to manage.

The effects of a single incident traumatic event

It’s normal to experience strong emotions after a traumatic event. These can include:

  • emotional numbness and detachment – feeling cut off from what happened, other people, and yourself

  • shock and disbelief – that the event has happened

  • fear – of death or injury, being alone, not being able to cope, or the event happening again

  • helplessness – feeling that you have no control

  • avoidance – of things that remind you of the event

  • negative thoughts or feelings – about the world or the reaction to the event

  • guilt or shame – for not having stopped the event, or for being better off than others, or for not reacting better or coping well enough

  • sadness – for things that have gone or been lost

  • isolation – feeling that no-one understands or can help

  • elation – joy at being alive and safe

  • anger and frustration – about the event, or the unfairness of it

  • re-experiencing the event – through dreams, flashbacks or thoughts

  • changes in relationships – feeling distant from others.


Other experiences can include:

  • headaches

  • changes in appetite and weight

  • racing heart

  • shaking or sweating

  • trouble sleeping

  • difficulty concentrating

  • emotional changes, like mood swings, anxiety, or a quick temper

  • difficulty with school or work

  • withdrawal from friends and family

  • problems keeping up with normal daily activities

  • risk-taking, including increased use of alcohol and other drugs

  • being overly alert or watchful.

Most people find that they gradually feel better over time – usually in the days and weeks after the event.

What is PTSD?

Most people begin to recover from a traumatic experience in the following few weeks. But some people have continuing symptoms of distress, or find that their symptoms are getting worse.

This can increase the risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or harmful levels of alcohol and other drug use.

Some of the signs of PTSD include:

  • Reminders of the traumatic event that are distressing. These could include: dreams, flashbacks, thoughts or memories of the event coming back unexpectedly, physiological reactions that remind you of the event.

  • Avoiding things that remind you of the event. This can include avoiding specific people, places, or events. It can also include efforts to avoid any unwanted memories, thoughts or feelings.

  • Changes to mood and thinking. For example these can include major changes to beliefs about oneself, others or the world, as well as major changes to emotional state (that gets in the way of living the life you want to live).

If these changes have been happening for you for 1 month or longer it is important to seek support.

Looking after yourself

Life can feel chaotic, unsettling and confusing after a traumatic event, so it’s important to do things to look after yourself. You can:

  • decide what media coverage you can cope with – avoid watching or reading about anything you find upsetting

  • get support from people you trust, including your friends, family or teachers by letting them know how you’re feeling

  • get back into your usual routines, like returning to work, school, sports and other hobbies you have

  • make time for exercise and rest, and for activities that you enjoy

  • learn some new coping skills.

When you feel ready, it can also be helpful to talk to people about your experiences and try to understand the event.


When should I get help?

It’s important to get help if you’re experiencing any of the effects of PTSD that:

  • last for more than one month

  • get worse

  • interfers with school, work, your relationships or activities that you enjoy

  • cause distress or upset you

  • make you think of harming yourself or someone else.

If symptoms of PTSD are left untreated they can worsen over time and have a significant impact on your life. Getting help early can help you begin to process things and improve your chances of fully recovering.

Where can I get help?

You can talk to someone you trust and are comfortable with for help. 

There are many general practitioners (GPs) and other health professionals that can help with your recovery. Many of them have worked with young people who have experienced trauma and will be able to help you deal with the stress and help you with recovery.

A good place to start might be your local community health centre or headspace centre, or you might want to talk with a trusted friend, teacher, Elder or family member about someone they can recommend.

To find a health service near you, visit the head to health website

Remember that you won’t need to talk about the details of the experience unless you feel completely comfortable and safe.


The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

12 November 2019

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