Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a treatable mental health condition that might occur after experiencing or witnessing extreme trauma. An accurate PTSD diagnosis requires professional assistance.
You may think that you or a loved one has PTSD, but making a self-diagnosis can be dangerous and lead to inadequate or inappropriate care. It’s better to make a record of your symptoms and connect with a mental health professional. They can thoroughly assess your symptoms against proper PTSD diagnostic criteria. Then, you’ll be ready to begin an effective, consistent treatment plan to help you manage symptoms of PTSD.
How is PTSD Diagnosed?
Though it may seem difficult to know how to diagnose PTSD, rest assured that there is a system in place. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) details the specific requirements that must be met before getting diagnosed with PTSD is possible.
As outlined in the DSM-5, 8 criteria are considered to make a PTSD diagnosis. The following is an overview of those clinical standards.
DSM-5 Criteria for PTSD
The DSM-5 is a manual used by doctors to diagnose mental disorders accurately and consistently. It’s a doctor’s first step towards making a mental health diagnosis so an effective treatment plan can be put together.
Criterion A: Stressor
Post-traumatic stress disorder results from exposure to a traumatic event. You must have either experienced this trauma yourself or witnessed it happening to someone else. Some examples of stressors that could lead to PTSD include:
- Severe injury
- An automotive accident
- Physical or sexual violence
- Death or a near-death experience
- Witnessing a violent act
PTSD could also result from repeated exposure to traumatic events. Some examples of PTSD from emotional abuse or trauma exposure include soldiers watching people die daily in battle, sustaining a long-term abusive relationship, first responders collecting body parts, or social workers who are constantly subjected to the horrors of child abuse cases.
Criterion B: Intrusion symptoms
Intrusion symptoms can result from repetitive or persistent exposure to a traumatic event that occurred in the past. You may experience involuntary, recurrent, and intrusive thoughts and memories of the event. You might have nightmares based on the details of what you experienced. You may have flashbacks during the daytime and feel that the event is happening all over again.
Criterion C: Avoidance symptoms
Avoidance is common in PTSD. For example, you may go out of your way to avoid any distressing memories or reminders of the event. You might try to avoid feelings, thoughts, people, conversations, objects, places, situations, or anything else that (even subconsciously) reminds you of your experience.
Criterion D: Negative mood changes
According to the DSM-5, a PTSD diagnosis requires negative changes in cognition and mood. These changes would have to begin after the event, and they will continue to worsen. Symptoms could include an inability to remember key details about the trauma exposure, dissociative amnesia, or increased use of alcohol and illicit substances. Some people also experience a persistently distorted worldview and have low expectations about either themself or others.
You might begin to blame others (or yourself) for causing the event you were traumatized by. You may also blame yourself or someone else for any consequences that have resulted. It’s not uncommon to experience persistently negative emotions, including anger, shame, fear, guilt, or worthlessness. Many people find they lose interest in doing anything, even things that were once very enjoyable.
Feeling detached from yourself and others, like the world is moving in slow motion, isn’t uncommon. Nor is feeling estranged from others, alienated, or unable to experience valuable emotions like love, joy, and happiness.
Criterion E: Reactivity changes
A doctor might make a PTSD diagnosis if you experience changes in reactivity and arousal after a traumatic event. According to the DSM-5, you’ll have at least two of the following symptoms:
- Aggressive behavior
- Being easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
- Self-destructive behavior
- Disturbed sleeping habits
- Feeling like danger is everywhere
Criterion F: Duration of symptoms
The persistence of symptoms is a key marker of PTSD. To get a PTSD diagnosis, you’ll have had Criteria B, C, D, and E symptoms for at least one month.
Criterion G: Functional impairment
You must be experiencing impairment in your life that stems from the stressor to be diagnosed with PTSD. This could be at work, home, or in your social life.
Criterion H: Exclusion
For a PTSD diagnosis to be made, your symptoms must not be caused by substance abuse, illness, or any medications you take.
Now that we understand the criteria necessary to get a diagnosis, let’s review what the DSM-5 requires from each category. You must meet:
- Criterion A: Stressors
- At least 1 symptom (or more) from Criterion B: Intrusion
- At least 1 symptom (or more) from Criterion C: Avoidance
- At least 2 symptoms (or more) from Criterion D: Negative mood changes
- At least 2 symptoms (or more) from Criterion E: Reactivity changes
- Criterion F: At least one month duration of symptoms
- Criterion G: Impairment to daily life
- Criterion H: Must not be caused by substance abuse, illness, or medications
There are additional diagnostic tests that mental health professionals sometimes use to help them gain a better understanding of whether or not you have PTSD.
Tests That Diagnose PTSD
Aside from meeting the PTSD diagnostic criteria above, a doctor will also want to complete a physical examination to check for any underlying medical problems that might contribute to your symptoms. You may be asked to undergo a comprehensive psychological evaluation. All of the information gathered will allow a doctor to make a full, complete diagnosis.
Results from a psychological evaluation will help rule out other possible causes for your PTSD-like symptoms. During the psych evaluation, you’ll be able to speak with a mental health professional and openly discuss the details of the traumatic experience you endured. This can help determine what might be causing the symptoms you have. With the help of a professional, you’ll likely be able to center in on the specific trigger for your symptoms.
“Trauma is difficult to diagnose. Living with emotional pain can make things worse, so it is important to get help in time.”Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir, MD
Speak openly during this evaluation and use the opportunity to allow your doctor to understand you on a deeper level. This is key to developing the most effective PTSD treatment program so you can alleviate your symptoms in the long term.
What to Do if You Get Diagnosed With PTSD
Getting diagnosed with PTSD can be a complex process. Even though mental health professionals understand how to diagnose PTSD, the process is multifaceted and can often take a long time. It’s important to rule out all other possible causes for your symptoms before beginning PTSD treatment. Additional conditions that could cause overlapping symptoms with PTSD include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Acute stress disorder
- Adjustment disorder
- Major depression
- Substance abuse
- Panic disorder
“PTSD is treatable with good therapy and medication options. A person who has been through trauma should not suffer. They should try to engage in treatment. Otherwise, the trauma from one’s past can impact their relationships, work, and other aspects of life. Seeking treatment as soon as possible can help overcome emotional pain, anxiety, and suffering caused by the traumatic experience.”Talkspace therapist Dr. Muhammad Munir, MD
If you’ve recently received a PTSD diagnosis and are struggling to manage your symptoms or how to treat PTSD, there are several ways you can find the help you need.
- Therapy: Multiple therapy techniques are known to be effective treatments for PTSD. One popular form of therapy used is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Other effective techniques include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and stress inoculation training.
- Consider medication: Medication might be an option to consider when coming up with a treatment plan for PTSD. In addition to therapy, medication can be effective in helping you control your thought processes and reduce or eliminate flashbacks and nightmares. Some of the common types of PTSD medication include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-anxiety medications, Alpha-1 blockers, and mood stabilizers.
- Learn more: They say knowledge is power, and this is true when it comes to a PTSD diagnosis. Understanding more about the disorder allows you to learn effective coping techniques that can help you manage your symptoms.
- Find a support group: Sometimes, just knowing there are like-minded people who understand what you’re going through can make all the difference in the world. Support groups can be instrumental in your ability to manage PTSD.
- Meditate: Mindfulness meditation for PTSD is both effective and easy to implement into your life. If you’ve never meditated before, a simple guided app is a great way to begin the process. Research shows that meditation can target and address many of the core features of PTSD.
- Try acupuncture: The ancient practice of acupuncture has been shown to be a safe, effective form of treatment for healing from PTSD naturally. Because it has a potential effect on the prefrontal and limbic brain structures, as well as the nervous system, it’s believed that acupuncture can relieve PTSD symptoms.
- Massage therapy: Massage can be both calming and effective at eliminating some of the stress symptoms associated with PTSD.
- Yoga: Yoga is a great way to focus and control your mind, which can be helpful when dealing with stress and anxiety that’s common with PTSD. Not to mention, you’ll get some great health benefits as well.
- Art and music therapy: Recent studies have shown that when combined with traditional methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, more creative modalities, like art therapy, can be an effective option to treat PTSD.
Getting diagnosed with PTSD can be frightening, but it’s important to know that a diagnosis can be the beginning, not the end. Once you know you have it, you’re ready to take the next steps and begin finding effective treatment options.