Understanding the PTSD diagnosis process

Discovering how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed is the first step towards understanding and managing this condition.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex emotional disorder that can affect anyone who’s experienced a traumatic event. It’s not just a natural response to difficult situations; it’s a serious condition that needs attention and support. PTSD can cause a range of symptoms, including:

  • Intrusive memories
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Intense emotional reactions to certain triggers
  • Being ‘on edge’ all the time
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty remembering things or concentrating

These symptoms can affect your ability to function on a daily basis and also cause difficulties in your relationships with others. Recognising the symptoms of PTSD, and getting a proper diagnosis and treatment is crucial when it comes to reclaiming your wellbeing.

In this guide, we’ll explore the process of diagnosing PTSD, including the diagnosis criteria, the methods involved and which professionals can carry out a diagnosis, so you can take steps towards getting the help you need.

How is PTSD diagnosed?

Diagnosing PTSD involves a detailed assessment by a trained medical professional such as a GP or other mental health specialist. This process usually involves a few steps to make sure that the specialist can get a comprehensive understanding of your condition. Steps may include:

  • Conducting an initial physical examination to rule out any underlying physical health problems that might be contributing towards your symptoms. An example of this could be a head injury, as this could cause memory problems, mood changes, anxiety and difficulty concentrating – all of which could potentially overlap with the symptoms of PTSD
  • Next, the professional will carry out a psychological evaluation, where they’ll discuss your symptoms, experiences and the triggering event(s) in detail
  • Lastly, they will use a diagnostic tool such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to make a formal diagnosis, based on all of the information they’ve gathered

In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, you must have been exposed to an event involving the actual or potential threat of death, violence or serious injury. This exposure can happen in a number of ways:

  • Personally experiencing the trauma
  • Witnessing the traumatic event happening to other people
  • Learning about a loved one going through something traumatic
  • Repeated exposure to traumatic situations, for example, if you work in the emergency services

A key factor when it comes to getting a diagnosis of PTSD is how persistent and debilitating your symptoms are. The DSM-5 states that symptoms need to be:

  • Present for more than a month following the traumatic event
  • Having a negative impact on your ability to function in your day-to-day life
  • Negatively affecting your relationships with others

Specialists will also be looking to determine whether you’re struggling with PTSD or complex PTSD (C-PTSD), which is slightly different. While both involve exposure to significant trauma, C-PTSD usually arises from repeated, prolonged or chronic traumatic events, often involving interpersonal relationships or environments where escape is difficult. This might include things like ongoing abuse, neglect or other harmful experiences.

Complex trauma, especially if this happens during childhood, can shape a person’s overall psychological and emotional development in profound ways. This means that C-PTSD can cause more emotional difficulties than PTSD, including problems with emotional regulation, trust and self-esteem, as well as having a pervasive impact on self-identity. 

What to expect from the PTSD diagnosis process

During the PTSD diagnosis process, the professional evaluating your condition will need to understand your experiences, emotions and reactions. They'll engage in supportive dialogue to find out more about the symptoms you’ve been struggling with. They might ask questions such as:

  • What triggered your symptoms?
  • How have your symptoms been affecting your daily life and relationships?

It’s important that you’re prepared to talk about the traumatic event(s). It’s crucial for the professional to understand the context of the situation, so they can make an accurate assessment. While this can be challenging and upsetting, openly sharing your thoughts, feelings and details of the event(s) that triggered them is really important. This can help to provide a clear picture of what you’re going through, meaning that professionals can tailor the most appropriate treatment approach for your needs.

Remember, this discussion will be held in a safe, confidential and highly empathetic environment, with the ultimate intention of helping you to get better. If you'd like to take someone with you for support, such as a family member or friend, this is absolutely fine. Make sure you do anything that'll help you to feel more comfortable during the process.  

Who can diagnose PTSD?

Diagnosing PTSD usually involves a joint effort among qualified healthcare professionals, who specialise in mental health and trauma-related conditions.

The diagnosis process will usually begin with your GP, who'll be able to provide an initial assessment. Your GP can then refer you to specialists, including psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, who will be able to formally assess and diagnose you with PTSD.

This multidisciplinary approach means you’ll get an accurate evaluation of your symptoms and a tailored treatment plan, should that be the next step for you.

How to get diagnosed with PTSD

If you think you might be struggling with PTSD, the most important first step is for you to make an appointment to see your GP. They’ll be able to explore your symptoms in more detail, provide advice and refer you to a mental health specialist, if needed.

Alternatively, you can contact a private provider, such as Priory, directly. We can offer quick access to a mental health expert, who will be able to diagnose your condition and recommend the best treatment for your individual needs.

Treatment for PTSD

Each PTSD treatment plan will be tailored to you, taking into account your unique experiences and needs.

There are a range of effective treatment options for PTSD. Therapy plays an important role. Techniques such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) have been shown to be effective in helping people to process their trauma and manage symptoms.

You may also be prescribed medication to help you to manage any specific symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety or depression. PTSD support groups, peer networks and charities, such as PTSD UK, can also provide a sense of community and understanding.

Remember, getting help for PTSD is an incredibly brave step towards healing. With the right support and resources, you can overcome your PTSD and take steps towards the healthy and fulfilling future you deserve.

This blog has been clinically reviewed by Dr Sumanta Gupta, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Manchester in September 2023.

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