What Is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?

Every law enforcement officer has been or will be involved with at least one traumatic event. Eventually traumatic events add up. Most officers will be able to cope with the event or events; however there are others that will not.


When there is exposure to multiple traumatic events, an officer in more vulnerable to developing more severe forms of PTSD, including cumulative and complex PTSD. Untreated PTSD can be disabling and/or deadly.

Who Is The Most Likely to Develop PTSD?

Most people who go through a traumatic event have some symptoms at the beginning. Yet only some will develop PTSD. It isn't clear why some people develop PTSD and others don't. Available data suggest that about 8% of men and 20% of women go on to develop PTSD, and roughly 30% of these individuals develop a chronic form that persists throughout their lifetimes. How likely you are to get PTSD depends on many things. These include: how intense the trauma was, how long it lasted, how close you were, how much control you felt, if you lost someone close, if you were injured, and how much support you received afterwards.

  • The highest potential risk is the experience of a previous trauma, especially in childhood
  • The individual who experiences the greatest traumas as measured by: magnitude, intensity, unpredictability, level of control, type of victimization, real/perceived personal responsibility, and feelings of betrayal.
  • The individual who reports a greater perceived threat, suffering, terror, horror or fear Individuals who lack a support system or who are in a social environment that produces shame, guilt, or stigmatization
  • Previous psychiatric disorder
  • Family history

What Are The Symptoms of PTSD?

The components for the diagnosis of PTSD symptoms include: exposure to a traumatic incident with three resultant and specific symptoms: re-experiencing, avoidance and hyper-arousal. PTSD symptoms usually start soon after the traumatic event, but they may not happen until months or years later. These symptoms may be terrifying, disrupt an individual’s life, work, and relationships. How disabling these symptoms are depends on several factors including: the person's life experiences before the trauma, their own natural ability to cope with stress, how serious the trauma was, and what kind of support a person gets immediately following the trauma. The symptoms may come and go over many years.

Re-experiencing Symptoms

Trauma survivors commonly re-experience their traumas. Re-experiencing symptoms involve a mental replay of the trauma accompanied by strong emotional, mental, and/or physical reactions. These symptoms are automatic and include: thinking about the trauma, seeing images of the event, feeling agitated, and having physical sensations like those that occurred during the trauma. This can happen when the person is awake or in nightmares during sleep. This feeling of being in the traumatic event again is called having flashbacks. Flashback symptoms are the most dramatic and are the focus of most media attention. Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, and are often triggered by ordinary occurrences; the slamming of a door, a news report, seeing an accident, or a car backfiring on the street. A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is indeed happening all over again. Re-experiencing symptoms are indicators that the individual is actively struggling to cope with the traumatic experience, even trying to make sense of what has happened.

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance symptoms are the most disabling and persistent; they fundamentally cause the most distress in an individual’s life. Avoidant symptoms are ways in which the person tries to avoid anything associated with the traumatic event; they are frequently exhibited by efforts to evade thoughts, activities, places, situations, or people that are reminders of the trauma. Additional avoidance symptoms include; not being able to recall important aspects of the traumatic event, having a sense of a shortened future, feeling emotionally dead, feeling disconnected from others, and losing interest in previously enjoyable activities. The individual may distance or detach himself from others and have difficulty experiencing any positive feeling. Symptoms may actually be physical: feelings of numbness or not feeling pain.

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