Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric label used to describe a particular group of symptoms that occur as a result of exposure to traumatic, or frightening experiences.

Children and young people who have experienced a frightening event will not necessarily develop PTSD, and not all reactions to traumatic experiences will reach the threshold to qualify as PTSD. PTSD does also not describe the full range of reactions that can be experienced after a traumatic event.

PTSD describes four broad groups of symptoms:

  • Re-experiencing the event (this may happen through dreams, memories or “flashbacks”)
  • Avoidance symptoms and behaviours (trying to avoid things that remind us of the trauma or which are frightening)
  • Negative mood (feeling low, anxious, unsettled or angry; or struggling to feel positive feelings)
  • Alertness and hypervigilance (being on the lookout for danger)

For a diagnosis of PTSD, these symptoms need to last for more than a month. Sometimes, these symptoms can present long after the trauma occurred.

In addition, there are a number of other symptoms that describe changes in feelings and thoughts, including:

  • Negative beliefs about oneself, the world and/or other people
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Distorted thoughts about the causes and consequences of the traumatic event(s)

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is used to describe a further group of symptoms, which may be experienced alongside the four broad PTSD symptoms listed above.

These further symptoms include:

  • Difficulties in sustaining relationships and connecting with others
  • Negative beliefs about oneself and feelings of shame or guilt
  • Emotion dysregulation, or an inability to calm oneself down

Treatments that have been shown to help children and young people with trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD include:

  • Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)
  • Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT)
  • Psychotherapy

Who can help?

Early intervention after a child or young person has experienced a frightening event can improve resilience and reduce the development of post-traumatic reactions. You can find more information on this on our page on supporting a young person after a traumatic event.

If in doubt, make an appointment to talk to your GP.

You can also get in touch with CAMHS or consider a self-referral via the link below:

Get support from Oxford Health CAMHS

Further resources

Short Films About Mental Health – Trauma PTSD – Dr Hannah Stratford, of Oxford Health

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Page last reviewed: 20 December, 2023