Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a new name for a very old condition. In the eary 1900s, it was known as "shell shock" or "battle fatigue." Before then, it had no name. In PTSD, a witness or victim of a terrible event or tragedy is so haunted by memories of the event that personal health and personality are affected.
Research suggests that as many as 10% of the population will be affected at one time in their life with PTSD. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men. The specific type of trauma is important in the gender distribution. For example, women exposed to a physical attack or threatened with a weapon are more likely than men to develop PTSD if exposed to the same trauma. But women who are sexually assaulted are less likely to develop PTSD than men who are sexually assaulted.
While approximately 50% of the population is exposed to severe trauma at some time during their life, fewer than 20% of these individuals will develop PTSD.
The kinds of events that can trigger PTSD were traditionally limited to the most violent and frightening situations, such as being involved in a plane crash, a shooting, or the collapse of a building after an earthquake or bomb. The main source of such trauma is war, and in North America the largest category of PTSD sufferers are war veterans. Much of what we know about this syndrome comes from studies involving former soldiers.
More recently, the definition has broadened. People who suffer rape or physical or sexual abuse may react in much the same way as those who have witnessed carnage or been threatened by violent death. In this context, PTSD among children has become a major focus because they are particularly likely to develop the symptoms associated with this condition.