Most people know that the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can significantly impact a person’s life. But what does it feel like to live with PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that some people develop after a traumatic life event. Usually, this life event is something very upsetting or disturbing, such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault. Sometimes PTSD develops after less significant events. The effect that this event has on an individual and their reaction to it plays a fundamental role in the development of PTSD.

Living with PTSD can make a person feel constantly uneasy, on-edge, scared and depressed. The symptoms of PTSD affect each person differently. However, there are some side effects and common features that are worth considering when trying to understand what PTSD feels like.


Flashbacks are unpleasant experiences that can cause a person to feel as if they are reliving the event that led to their PTSD. Sometimes something triggers this flashback, like the noise of a car or ambulance, a news report, or a specific smell. In other cases, flashbacks appear seemingly out of nowhere.

Common PTSD flashback symptoms include:

  • Seeing images of what happened
  • Feeling sensations in the body, like pain or pressure, even if there’s nothing there
  • Experiencing the same emotions felt during the traumatic event, such as fear, horror or distress
  • Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing and panic attacks

These flashbacks can happen at any time of day, making individuals feel like they are in a permanent state of trauma and danger. These symptoms are extremely stressful and can make it challenging to lead a normal life.


Someone experiencing hypervigilance may feel as if they can never relax. These individuals are always on edge. Their friends and family might notice that they are jumpy, irritable and react unpredictably.

PTSD hypervigilance may manifest itself in the following ways:

  • Being easily startled
  • Being irritable and easily angry
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating

Some people compare the feeling of hypervigilance to the way it feels when someone jumps out and scares them. With PTSD-related hypervigilance, that feeling doesn’t go away.

Avoidance and Numbing

Many people try to avoid situations that might remind them of the traumatic event or trigger a flashback. This avoidance could mean avoiding crowds or busy open places, not wanting to drive a car, or staying away from certain people.

Sometimes sufferers will deliberately keep themselves busy in an attempt to fill their mind and keep any upsetting thoughts at bay. It is also common to use drugs or alcohol to try to avoid the symptoms of PTSD. Other people may feel detached from their body, thoughts and feelings.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear and stress that are accompanied by physical symptoms, such as:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Feeling sick or dizzy
  • Tingling hands

These symptoms can be scary. In some cases, they may be so severe that individuals feel like they’re having a heart attack. Getting help for PTSD can help reduce how often panic attacks happen and how bad they are.

Nightmares and Insomnia

It is common for people with PTSD to have problems sleeping, either because they can’t get to sleep or they avoid sleep out of fear that they’ll be vulnerable to danger while they’re sleeping.

Many people with PTSD also have vivid nightmares related to the traumatic event they experienced. These nightmares can make them feel as if they are reliving the traumatic event, causing significant distress and affecting sleep quality.

Not getting enough quality sleep can impact a person’s overall health, leaving them feeling constantly exhausted and, in some cases, unable to care for themselves properly.


PTSD and depression are interrelated. People who previously had depression are at increased risk of PTSD, and PTSD is a significant risk factor for becoming depressed. Several symptoms of depression overlap with those of PTSD. It’s important to talk to a mental health professional about all of these symptoms so they can determine the best treatment approach.

Chronic Pain

The relationship between chronic pain and PTSD is complicated. In some cases, the event that triggered the PTSD caused a physical injury, which in itself has led to chronic pain. However, PTSD can also increase an individual’s risk of developing chronic pain, perhaps because of the constant high levels of stress, lack of sleep and complete physical exhaustion characteristic of PTSD. Because of this relationship between chronic pain and PTSD, receiving comprehensive treatment for PTSD can sometimes also help improve symptoms of chronic pain.

How to Get Help for PTSD

Sadly, PTSD is becoming more and more common. Living with PTSD can negatively impact your life, making it hard to hold down a job, look after your family or even care for yourself.

If you have PTSD, it is crucial to seek professional help and treatment as soon as possible. Don’t put off getting advice from a medical professional. If you or a loved one lives with co-occurring PTSD and substance use disorder, centers like The Recovery Village can be a great place to get help. Reach out to a representative today for more information.

a woman wearing glasses and a blazer.
Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
a man smiling in front of a brick wall.
Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more
Sources “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Accessed April 10, 2019. “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2019. “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2019. “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” Mind, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with 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 providers.