How Do I Know If I Have PTSD?

Author: IAFF Staff

May 23, 2018

Most fire fighters and paramedics are no strangers to trauma. After all, events that would be uncommon to most people to experience — such as car wrecks, fires and overdoses — are a normal part of the work day for many IAFF members. These events can be difficult to process. But when the memories of particularly bad calls linger for weeks or even months and begin to interfere with daily life, there may be something larger at play: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The American Psychiatric Association outlines eight criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V), a tool that doctors and clinicians use to diagnose PTSD. If you suspect that you or someone you love may have PTSD, it’s helpful to be aware of the diagnostic criteria and seek professional help if necessary.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must meet all the following criteria:

1. Exposure to a Traumatic Event

PTSD is always tied to traumatic events, typically those that threaten death, serious injury or violence. While some may fear for their own lives during these times, many traumatic events involve directly witnessing life-threatening trauma that others experience or observing the aftermath of such trauma. In the case of fire fighters and paramedics, this may involve rescuing people from dangerous situations, including car crashes, fires and drug overdoses.

2. Experiencing Intrusion Symptoms

People affected by PTSD re-live the events of their trauma in one or more of the following ways:

  • Recurrent, involuntary and intrusive memories
  • Frightening nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Intense emotional distress in response to reminders of trauma
  • Intense physical reaction in response to reminders of trauma

3. Avoiding Trauma-Related Stimuli

Re-experiencing a traumatic event can be hard on a person, both emotionally and physically. Because of this, fire fighters and paramedics with PTSD will avoid and attempt to push away any thoughts, feelings, places or situations that remind them of the traumatic event.

Man with PTSD sitting on the ground outside with his hands covering his face

4. Experiencing Negative Thoughts or Feelings

Most people have pessimistic thoughts or feelings from time to time. But those struggling with PTSD experience negative thoughts and emotions in at least two or more of the following ways:

  • Inability to remember key parts of the traumatic event
  • Exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the traumatic event
  • Feelings of detachment from others, even when with others
  • Trouble experiencing positive emotions
  • Having overly negative assumptions and thoughts about the world or oneself
  • Intense, persistent negative emotions
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities

5. Experiencing Trauma-Related Arousal

Individuals with PTSD experience trauma-related arousal in at least two ways. You may feel irritable and angry, or constantly on guard. You may be easily startled or feel an increased need to scan your environment for threats. You may even begin to engage in reckless or self-destructive behavior. Difficulty sleeping or staying focused because of this heightened state is also common.

6. Symptoms Last for More Than One Month

For this collection of symptoms to be diagnosed as PTSD, they must last for more than one month. If symptoms persist for less than a month, you may be diagnosed with acute stress disorder (ASD).

7. Symptoms Create Significant Conflict, Impairment or Distress

To be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must also significantly interfere with your day-to-day functioning. Do you find yourself unable to function in personal and professional settings because of the symptoms described above? If , you may have PTSD.

8. No Outside Explanation for Symptoms

Lastly, to be accurately diagnosed with PTSD, your symptoms can’t be attributed to any medications, illegal drugs or outside illnesses.

If you’ve experienced the above symptoms after a difficult call and symptoms have persisted 30 days or more, you may have PTSD. But this shouldn’t be cause for despair. Realizing that you are dealing with PTSD is the first step to relief. Recognizing your own personal experiences in this collection of symptoms isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s a sign that you need treatment, and help is available. Designed exclusively for fire fighters and paramedics, the IAFF Center of Excellence can help you work through PTSD and get back to a life you love. Reach out to a representative today for more information.

Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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