PTSD: Nursing Overview

Nursing Knowledge

PTSD: Nursing Overview

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance behaviors that can significantly impact a person’s daily life. PTSD is a prevalent condition that affects a wide range of individuals, including war veterans, survivors of sexual assault, and those who have experienced accidents or natural disasters. Nurses play a crucial role in identifying and managing PTSD symptoms in their clients.
Last updated: December 4, 2023

Table of contents

PTSD meaning: what is PTSD? 

PTSD stands for posttraumatic stress disorder. 

It is a disorder that can develop in people that have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. PTSD is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, memories taking over the present moment making the client re-experience the fear even after the traumatic event has ended, nightmares, and avoidance behaviors that interfere with ADLs. PTSD can be acute or chronic. 

What is complex PTSD? 

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition that results from repeated, prolonged exposure to traumatic events, often occurring in contexts where the individual feels trapped or without a viable escape, such as in cases of long-term abuse, captivity, or ongoing childhood neglect.

Symptoms of C-PTSD can include those seen in PTSD.

Who is at high risk for developing PTSD?

PTSD affects 7–8 out of 100 people at some point in their life. High-risk populations for developing PTSD include:

  • War veterans
  • Children
  • Assault and abuse survivors
  • Those who have experienced accidents, disaster, mass conflict or displacement
  • Those who have experienced other life-threatening events such as medical events or natural disasters

What causes PTSD? 

Common causes of PTSD include: 

  • Sexual violence
  • Interpersonal experiences (death of loved one, life-threatening illness of child) 
  • Violence, assault, combat
  • Mass conflict or displacement
  • Other life-threatening events (medical events, accidents, natural disasters)
  • Childhood trauma

What are PTSD symptoms? 

Signs and symptoms of PTSD include: 

  • Nightmares/insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Substance abuse
  • Cognitive delays in children
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories, flashbacks
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, dread
  • Avoidance of reminders of event
  • Changes in arousal, reactivity
  • Dissociation, numbness, flat affect when discussing events 

What are triggers in PTSD? 

Triggers can lead to exhibition of, or worsening, signs and symptoms of PTSD. Triggers can be anything that reminds a client of what happened right before or during the traumatic event. 

  • Usually tied to senses
  • Can be places, sounds, tastes, scents, situations, or anniversaries

How to diagnose PTSD

Diagnosis of PTSD can be made in clients ≥ 6 years old that meet the DSM-5-TR criteria*:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence
  • At least 1 re-experiencing symptom
  • At least 1 avoidance symptom
  • At least 2 arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least 2 cognition and mood symptoms

* The DSM-5-TR expands on the criteria for each category.

What are options for PTSD treatment? 

Positive coping strategies

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Learning about trauma and PTSD
  • Support groups
  • Understanding triggers
  • Professional support
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Mindfulness

Types of therapy

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy and cognitive therapy
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Sensorimotor psychotherapy
  • Group or family therapy
  • Prolonged exposure therapy


  • SSRIs
  • Other antidepressants
  • Beta blockers
  • Mood stabilizers
  • Anti-psychotics
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Alternative/complementary therapies

How to help someone with PTSD 

As a nurse, you play a vital role in helping a client with PTSD. Here are key steps:

  • Create a safe environment.
  • Regularly monitor symptoms, mental state, and vital signs.
  • Educate the client about PTSD.
  • Encourage therapy compliance.
  • Teach coping strategies.
  • Emphasize the importance of healthy habits, like regular exercise, a balanced diet, and good sleep hygiene.
  • Encourage participation in group therapy or support groups.
  • Educate family members about PTSD and how they can provide support.
  • Advocate for the patient: Be their voice in care meetings, ensure their needs are met, and their rights respected.

Always ensure you’re working as part of a multidisciplinary team, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, to provide comprehensive care.


PTSD: Nursing Overview

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