What Are the Criteria for PTSD?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 21 February 2020
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which an extremely distressing event goes on to negatively impact an individual’s life through a range of long-lasting symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sets out several criteria for PTSD. To be diagnosed with this condition, an individual must experience a traumatic event and must have recurring recollections of that event. He must also demonstrate behaviors known as avoidance and numbing, and must show signs of agitation. The final criteria for PTSD include significant disruption of the affected individual’s life and a minimum symptom duration of at least 30 days.

As set out by the DSM, the initial criterion for PTSD is that the individual in question must have experienced a traumatic event. This can include anything from taking part in a war to being sexually assaulted to getting hit by a car. The individual may have participated in the traumatic event, or may have been a direct witness to it.

Next, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, an individual must have intrusive, ongoing recollections of this traumatic event. These recollections can take various forms. He may, for instance, have nightmares about the event or have hallucinations about it. Alternatively, he may find himself thinking about the event over and over again, or may experience physical or psychological distress when he sees or hears some reminder of it.


Additional criteria for PTSD include uncharacteristic forms of conduct known as numbing and avoidance. The term numbing refers to an unwillingness or inability on the part of the affected individual to demonstrate emotion toward others or to interest himself in people and activities he once cared about. Avoidance means that the individual attempts to keep away from activities, conversations, locations, and so on that may lead him to think about the traumatic event.

Another criterion for PTSD is ongoing agitation. As with disorder-related recollections, this agitation can take a number of forms. For instance, an affected individual may find it hard to sleep or focus. He may be more prone than normal to anger or fear, and might find that he always feels on edge.

Two remaining criteria for PTSD relate to how severely a traumatic event impacts an individual’s life and how long the individual’s symptoms persist. In order to be recognized as PTSD, an individual’s condition generally must have an extremely disruptive effect on his life, causing him, for instance, to become dependent on alcohol or to be unable to work. Additionally, symptoms must persist for at least 30 days before PTSD can be diagnosed. As no physical test exists to verify the existence of PTSD, physicians generally can make a diagnosis only after speaking with a patient in depth to determine whether he meets DSM criteria for the condition.


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