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PTSD Awareness Month: What Exactly is PTSD?

Did you know that May is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) awareness month? In acknowledgment of this, let’s increase our awareness of this condition by unpacking what the criteria actually is for PTSD and the prevalence of it in the United States.

According to The U.S. Government of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, while it is difficult to know the exact number, the best estimates for PTSD is in the U.S. adult population is as follows:

  • About 6 out of every 100 people (or 6% of the U.S. population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.

  • About 5 out of every 100 adults (or 5%) in the U.S. has PTSD in any given year. In 2020, about 13 million Americans had PTSD.

  • Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. About 8 of every 100 women (or 8%) and 4 of every 100 men (or 4%) will have PTSD at some point in their life. This is in part due to the types of traumatic events that women are more likely to experience—such as sexual assault—compared to men.

  • Veterans are more likely to have PTSD than civilians. Veterans who deployed to a war zone are also more likely to have PTSD than those who did not deploy.

So, what exactly is the criteria for PTSD? Without providing full a course of Abnormal Psychology, PTSD is defined as experiencing the following symptoms for more than one month after a traumatic event occurs:

  • ​​Reliving the event, which often comes in the form of nightmares and/or flashbacks.

  • Avoiding things that remind you of the event, such as avoiding external reminders or chronically distracting yourself from internal reminders. 

  • Having more negative thoughts and feelings than before the event, such as numbness, difficulty experiencing positive or loving emotions, loss of interest and feelings of guilt and/or shame.

  • Feeling on edge (also called hyperarousal), which could manifest as irritability, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating or an easier startle response.

If this sounds like your or someone you love, I recommend talking to a professional for further assessment. There are treatment options available, including psychotherapy and psychiatric medications. The three most effective psychotherapy modalities for treating PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD, are:

  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) where you learn skills to understand how trauma changed your thoughts and feelings. Changing how you think about the trauma can change how you feel.

  • Prolonged Exposure (PE) where you talk about your trauma repeatedly until memories are no longer upsetting. This will help you get more control over your thoughts and feelings about the trauma. You also go to places or do things that are safe, but that you have been staying away from because they remind you of the trauma.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves focusing on sounds or hand movements while you talk about the trauma. This helps your brain work through the traumatic memories.

In conclusion, while recovering from PTSD, or really any kind of trauma, is hard work, it is possible for it to go into full remission. In the words of poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all. And, ultimately, I hope reading this brings you some sense of hope.


Kim Johnson, LMHC, MT-BC, is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and board certified music therapist (MT-BC) who graduated with her master’s from Lesley University in 2017. She has experience with adults and adolescents in group private practice and community mental health settings. The levels of care she has worked in are outpatient, with both individual and group therapy and in partial hospital programs for mental health and substance use disorders. Additionally, she has had intensive training in dialectical behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy for PTSD.

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