PTSD for beginners

1 in 10 persons develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after exposure to a traumatic incident. Traumatic incidents refer to episodes of witnessing or experiencing violence that threaten a human life or human dignity. There has been much speculation about COVID-19 and the traumatic experience some may experience because of it. It is important to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms that indicate that additional support could be beneficial to you.

Here’s what you need to know about PTSD’s four symptom clusters:


  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Nightmares

PTSD is commonly described as a memory disorder. In effect, the incident that took place challenged your existing understanding of the world/life to such an extent that your brain doesn’t know where to file the information. Similar to a disorganized linen cupboard: a small trigger could cause the doors to fly open and all the contents to come tumbling out.


  • Avoiding places, persons, thoughts, feelings that remind you of the incident

This symptom category refers to the “flight” component in the “fight or flight” response. Reminders of the trauma induces extreme anxiety thus a person will rather avoid the triggers. What makes PTSD so distressing is that the “triggers” can be generalized. If the incident took place with a person wearing a hat, you may find that you are scared of all people wearing hats. Here are some tips on dealing with avoidance.

Negative change in cognitions & mood

  • Persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or others
  • Estrangement from others
  • Diminished interest in activities
  • Inability to remember key aspects of the event

For a pattern of behaviour to be deemed a “disorder” it must impede with a person’s level of functioning (occupational, academic, social). This cluster of symptoms highlight the difference in their behvaiour in comparison to their previous level of functioning. A person with PTSD could be experiencing survivor guilt, shame, depression, withdrawal, etc.

Alterations in arousal & reactivity

  • Aggressive, reckless, self-destructive behaviour
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Hypervigilance
  • Exaggerated startle response

This symptom category refers to the “fight” component in the “fight or flight” response. Your system is flooded with adrenaline because of the ongoing perception of threat (even when you are objectively safe, persons with PTSD continue to feel unsafe). To try to regain a sense of safety, a person with PTSD could get frightened very easily (e.g. when a door bangs), be acutely aware of the environment, etc.

Treatment for PTSD

Many people experience these symptoms immediately following a traumatic event. The human brain is excellently created and most persons’ symptoms self-resolve within the first 30 days. If symptoms persist for a month after the incident, some psychological treatment could be advantageous:

Critical incident stress debriefing

Evidence from research studies indicate that this method is not helpful. In some instances CISD can be harmful, because the group work could lead to re-traumatization.

Exposure therapy

This intervention assists a person to “unpack the linen cupboard” of their mind and organize the memory. The treatment never requires a person to go back to a situation that is objectively unsafe, rather it helps the person to expose themselves to thoughts and scenarios that are perceived as scary due to the generalization of avoidance symptoms. Find out more about the importance of facing your fears here.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Similar to exposure therapy, EMDR requires that a person think about the traumatic incident. The difference is the use of a technique where the person moves their eyes rapidly to make it a bit easier to think about the memory.


Medication can be beneficial in the short term (e.g. to help you to sleep), but it does not resolve PTSD symptoms. If medication is used, it is best combined with psychological treatment.

Read more for more suggestions on ways to deal with anxiety, specifically as it pertains to uncertainty pertaining to COVID-19.