You know you don’t feel right. Or you know a loved one is acting or thinking differently. You’ve experienced trauma, so is this PTSD? How do you know?

Turning to the DSM for Answers

If you’ve heard anything about mental health diagnoses, you’ve probably heard of the DSM. So what exactly is it, and how does it help? The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (no wonder we abbreviate it). It’s in its fifth edition, so you may also see it referred to as the DSM-5 or DSM-V. This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association (ASA). It outlines the criteria for classifying mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and many, many others. It’s regularly updated to reflect changing research and knowledge regarding mental health and treatment.

The DSM is the go-to source for clinicians, researchers, regulation agencies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and even policy makers needing diagnostic criteria. The DSM is relevant to the general population as well because it sets the guidelines for diagnosing what is and what isn’t a mental health disorder. It helps us better understand what exactly we are experiencing, what a loved one is experiencing and what we can do to make things better. The DSM plays a key role in helping us understand and treat mental health issues like PTSD.

Using the DSM to Diagnose PTSD

No, you don’t have to read the entire DSM to better understand PTSD or the symptoms you’re experiencing. It’s a professional resource, so while valuable, it can be dense and clinical. You’ll get the best, most accurate diagnosis by talking with medical and mental health professionals. But in the meantime, you can use information from the DSM to begin to explore your mental health.

What Are the DSM Criteria for PTSD?

No list of symptoms is set in stone. As MedlinePlus explains,

“PTSD starts at different times for different people. Signs of PTSD may start soon after a frightening event and then continue. Other people develop new or more severe signs months or even years later. PTSD can happen to anyone, even children.”1

People will experience different symptoms at different times. These symptoms will come and go, will change, will be personal. However the DSM can give an outline and sample symptoms that give you a better understanding of your thoughts, behaviors and experiences.

The DSM criteria for PTSD include the following:2

The subject has been exposed to a traumatic event with both conditions:
  • The subject experienced, witnessed, or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others
  • The subject’s experience involved extreme fear, helplessness, or horror
The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced or re-lived in one or more of the following:
  • Repeated and intrusive distressing recollections of the trauma, including thoughts, perceptions and images
  • Persistent distressing dreams or nightmares of the traumatic event
  • Reliving or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring, i.e. having flashbacks, illusions, hallucinations, dissociative flashbacks episodes and a sense of reliving the experience
  • Experiencing intense psychological distress to internal or external triggers that resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
  • Physiological reactivity on exposure to internal or external triggers that resemble an aspect of the traumatic event
Recurring avoidance of things associated with the trauma and numbing and detachment, identified by three or more of the following:
  • The conscious effort to avoid thoughts, feelings, and conversations associated with the trauma
  • The conscious effort to avoid activities, places, or people that provoke memories of the trauma
  • Blocking out or the inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
  • Noticeably showing diminished interest or participation in activities
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Restricted range of affect (lacking the ability to have emotional connections or intimate relationships)
  • Hopeless about a future (feeling like a career, marriage, or other long-term life plans are unattainable)
Recurring symptoms of arousal (not present prior to the trauma) exemplified by two or more of the following:
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Irritability, trouble controlling anger, angry outbursts
  • Trouble concentration
  • Hypervigilance
Exaggerated startle response (seeming on-guard)
The symptoms of reliving, avoidance, and hyper-arousal must persist for more than 1 month.
The symptoms will clinically cause significant interference, distress or impairment to one’s social, occupational or other areas of one’s life.

Remember that these are professional, clinical guidelines. Get the best understanding of your symptoms and your treatment options by reaching out to mental health care providers such as Black Bear Lodge.

Professional Diagnosis and Treatment for PTSD

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about may have PTSD or another mental health issue, you do not have to slog through lists of symptoms alone. Be proactive with your health and ease your worries by talking with a professional about what’s going on. Learn more about PTSD and find diagnostic and treatment help for all mental health disorders by calling our toll-free helpline. We offer free and confidential initial assessments and are here 24 hours a day to assist you with your questions, concerns, and needed information. We are the experts in mental health, and can help you find the treatment that’s right for your unique recovery needs.

By Alanna Hilbink

1“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” MedlinePlus. 30 Nov. 2018.
2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). American Psychological Association. 18 May 2013.