Is It PTSD? Signs + Symptoms Veterans Should Look Out For

Symptoms may take several months (or years) to develop.

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If you’re a veteran and you think you have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a psychologist will ask you about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. Your symptoms provide a big window into how the trauma of combat is affecting your life.

While PTSD may take years or even decades to appear, people who have experienced a traumatic event may notice some mood changes right away. “They can experience thinking about it often, having it be intruding into their dreams, increased reactivity, some negative mood,” says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

Acute Stress Disorder vs. PTSD

Experiencing mood changes after a traumatic event is pretty common. When these changes are intense or dysfunctional, but last under a month, it’s called acute stress disorder.

“Acute stress disorder is between three days following the traumatic event and one month,” says Dr. Spray.

When these changes last longer than a month, it is no longer acute stress disorder. A doctor would then reassess the patient to see if they meet the criteria for PTSD.

“We consider these symptoms following a traumatic event to become PTSD when they start to interfere significantly with one's life,” says Dr. Spray.

Symptoms to Look For

You can group the symptoms of PTSD into four categories: re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognitions, and reactivity.

  • Re-experiencing means reliving the event. It refers to symptoms like flashbacks and nightmares of the event.
  • Avoidance refers to avoiding triggers that might cause them to re-experience the traumatic event. For example, they might avoid places that remind them of the event, such as a fireworks show that reminds them of gunfire.
  • Negative cognitions means negative mood changes. They might feel “like the world is no longer a safe place [or] that others are no longer trustworthy,” says Dr. Spray.
  • Reactivity, or arousal, refers to being hypervigilant, easily startled, having difficulty sleeping, and being “on edge.”

Getting Help

“If someone thinks that they may have some symptoms of PTSD, or really any difficulty readjusting to the civilian world, I really encourage them to speak to a mental health provider who can then connect them to the type of care that they would most benefit from,” says Dr. Spray.