What Are The Official PTSD Criteria?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 06/21/2022

Before we get into official definitions and diagnoses, it is important to clarify that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not the affected individual’s fault. If you or a loved one have PTSD, just know that you and millions of other people are victims of this horrible mental health illness. PTSD is, unfortunately, a quite common mental health disorder affecting approximately 8.7% of the world’s population. 

Another way to look at PTSD’s impact is by understanding which experiences this disorder. PTSD is often associated with military veterans, and wartime can certainly force individuals into potentially traumatic situations. However, anyone can experience PTSD.

There is so much to learn about the core symptoms of PTSD, the official criteria of PTSD, and treatment options. But first, if you or a loved one may be experiencing PTSD, take a moment to breathe and focus on the present moment. PTSD can negatively impact an individual’s life, but thanks to professionally vetted treatment plans and accessible educational resources, PTSD can be managed.

Please, continue reading this article and discover something that can help you or a loved one with PTSD.

What are the core symptoms of PTSD?

Some people may develop PTSD after witnessing a traumatic or life-altering moment, such as losing someone close or violence caused by natural disasters. PTSD affects each individual differently, so some may experience certain symptoms, while others show different signs of PTSD.

However, there are four core stages of PTSD. Each is as follows:

  1. Avoidance
    • Some people with PTSD may avoid places related to their trauma or isolate themselves from family and friends. They may avoid these places because they do not want to face their trauma, which can be painful for them.
    • While avoidance is a normal human response to something tragic, if a person regularly avoids people or places, PTSD negatively affects their lives.
  2. Re-experiencing
    • Another element of PTSD is if an individual re-experiences their traumatic event at inconvenient times. For example, when they go to sleep, they may dream about their traumatic past. Other instances include smelling or seeing something that reminds them of their trauma.
    • People may also get PTSD from watching other people experience a tragic event. For example, people may experience PTSD after experiencing something like a natural disaster or terrorist attack, even if they were not physically present at the time of the disaster but witnessed the aftermath.
  3. Feeling Worse About Yourself Or The World
    • For some people with PTSD, they may experience overwhelming guilt about their participation in a traumatic event. This guilt can prevent them from enjoying their lives. Thus, they may not feel happy when they are with family or they potentially have a negative outlook on the world.
  4. Hyperarousal
    • Lastly, those with PTSD may feel especially sensitive towards specific sights, sounds, or other general situations of life. For instance, they may be feeling jittery as they are performing their daily rituals. They can also have increased irritability, such as having an emotional response to car horns.

It is normal for a person to experience one or all of these symptoms at different stages in their life. People will always have an emotional response towards an event that personally affected them. But if these symptoms occur daily for an extended period of time, the individual may have post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Another way to identify if you or a loved one need professional advice is by taking an online test. Only professional medical experts can diagnose PTSD in you or a loved one, but a test may help recognize symptoms and find other resources. If you are interested in taking a test, then click here.

What Are The Official Criteria For PTSD?

The official criteria for being diagnosed with PTSD are laid out in the DSM-5 which defines criteria for people who are six years of age or older. Most importantly, only medical health experts can diagnose an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder. The following information related to the DSM-5 is only used here for educational purposes and not for diagnostic purposes.

  1. Exposure to physical events or altercations in at least one or more of the following ways:
    1. Being present at the traumatic event or directly witnessing said event occurring to other individuals.
    2. Discovering that a family member or close friend experienced a traumatic event.
    3. Re-experiencing or being exposed to undesired elements about the traumatic event.
    4. This criterion does not include exposure through technology such as cell phones and computers unless the trauma is work-related.
  2. Experiencing one or more of the following listed intrusion symptoms that relate to an individual’s traumatic events after the event occurred:
    1. Re-experiencing painful and unwanted memories of the traumatic event.
    2. In children older than 6 years, they may re-experience themes and aspects of the traumatic event during play
    3. Frequent dreams that are traumatic.
    4. For children, they have traumatic dreams that frighten them but are not aware that the dreams relate to their trauma
  3. Reactions dissociative in nature (including flashbacks) where the individual believes that they are re-enacting to the traumatic event. Some reactions may frequently happen in which the individual may completely lose their sense of awareness.
  4. In children, they may re-enact specific moments from their trauma
  5. Displaying body language, either internal or external represents some part of an individual’s traumatic event.
  6. Consistent avoidance of the traumatic event that begins after onset, which is indicated by the following criteria:
    1. Avoiding thoughts, places, or people that resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
    2. Negative changes in one’s mood or behavior beginning after the traumatic event happened as indicated by the following criteria:
    3. Not remembering the traumatic event, which may be typically due to dissociative amnesia.
    4. Having a negative outlook about oneself or the world.
    5. A belief that an individual is to blame for the traumatic event.
    6. Constantly displaying negative emotions, including shame, fear, and horror.
    7. Lack of energy in activities that interest the individual.
    8. Isolation from family and friends.
    9. Feelings of hopelessness or instances of happiness becoming rare.

Observations of hyperarousal related to the traumatic event and potentially worsened after the event happened, as indicated by the following criteria:

  1. Increase irritability activity with little provocation
  2. Typically expressed as physical or verbal gestures toward other people or objects
  3. In a state of increased alertness
  4. Feeling startled over small matters
  5. Difficulty in concentrating
  6. Change in sleeping pattern (waking up too late or too early)
  7. The length of Criteria 2-5 last longer than a month
  8. The impact of the symptoms negatively affect an individual’s social, work, and family life
  9. Each symptom is not easily explained as the result of substance abuse or symptoms of a separate medical condition

What Are The Treatment Options?

There is no one way to treat people with PTSD. There are many options, but they can vary and some may work better than others.

Below is a list of treatment options that can greatly help you or a loved one experiencing PTSD. This is not an exhaustive list. True treatment plans can only be given by a medical professional after assessing you personally. Consult your healthcare provider and discuss options for treating PTSD. But some common treatment plans include:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

  • CBT is one of the most effective treatments of PTSD. The core principle of CBT is educating patients on their mental health illness and having them come face-to-face with issues causing them distress. There are a few distinct types of CBT:
    • Exposure therapy
      • This type of therapy helps people face their fears by being exposed to personal traumatic memories in a controlled environment.  This exposure can either be done mentally by the individual, or doctors can use virtual reality to recreate the traumatic event. Exposure therapy helps individuals understand and face their trauma, particularly for those with severe PTSD. Again, it is imperative to clarify that this therapy can only be conducted by a medical professional in a controlled environment.
    • Cognitive restructuring
      • For this type of treatment, experts help people make sense of their memories of a traumatic event. As discussed before, some people equate memories of a traumatic event with fear. As such, cognitive restructuring examines the traumatic event from a different and unbiased angle.

Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing (EMDR)

  • This is a type of psychotherapy in which people are asked to pay attention to something specific, such as a sound or a back-and-forth movement, while thinking about their traumatic memory. Studies have discovered that this is an effective means of treating PTSD, but some experts argue that effectiveness comes from patients’ exposure to their traumatic memory and not due to the actions of EMDR. 


PTSD is usually not something that can simply go away after some time has passed. It is a mental health illness that can severely impact an individual’s way of life, even for people with mild PTSD. But it is possible to manage PTSD, heal, and get back control of either you or a loved one’s life.

Remember that the best way to help someone is to be there for them. Listen to their troubles. And let them know that they are not alone.