Causes, Symptoms & Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Following a traumatic ordeal, most people will feel frightened, anxious, sad, and disconnected from others. For some people, however, these feelings don’t resolve within a few days or months following the event. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very serious mental health disorder triggered by exposure to a terrifying event. The symptoms an individual experiences may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Fear is the body’s natural reaction to danger, which triggers the body to prepare to either defend itself or flee from the perceived threat. This type of fight-or-flight response is a normal, healthy emotional and physical reaction that helps to protect an individual from harm. However, for people who have PTSD, this reaction is damaged or changed, which can leave an individual feeling frightened or stressed – even when they are no longer in danger.

While once considered a condition only experienced by war veterans, it’s now understood that PTSD can affect any person at any age. It’s important to note, however, that not everyone who lives through a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder develops very differently in each person who experiences it. Some may notice symptoms in the days and weeks following the event while others do not develop symptoms for weeks, months, or even years following the event. While any situation that causes people to feel helpless or as if they’re in danger can lead to PTSD, the most common traumatic events include:

  • Plane crashes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • Rape/sexual assault
  • Kidnapping
  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Car accidents
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Child neglect
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Statistics

Each year, about 5.2 million adults struggle with PTSD; only a fraction of those who have experienced a trauma. PTSD is more common in women; approximately 10% of women develop post-traumatic stress disorder at some time in their lives compared to about 5% of men. About 7% to 8% of the population of the United States will develop PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

Causes and Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The overall cause of PTSD is experiencing, witnessing, or learning about an event that causes intense fear, helplessness, and horror. However, it is not know why some individuals will develop this disorder after a traumatic event while others do not. It’s thought that the development of post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by a variety of genetic, environmental, and physical factors working together with risk factors.

Some of the causes and risk factors for the development of PTSD can include:

Genetic: People who have first-degree relatives who have anxiety disorders or other types of mental illness are at a greater risk for developing PTSD after exposure to a particularly traumatic event. Additionally, inherited mental health risks such as an increased risk for anxiety or depression can play a role, as does inherited aspects of personality.

Physical: In neuroimaging studies of the brains of people who have PTSD, it’s been noted that there are marked differences in the structure of certain brain structures. Additionally, the neurotransmitter levels of dopamine and serotonin may be lower than in those who do not have an anxiety disorder. This means that the way in which an individual’s brain regulates the release of neurotransmitters and hormones in response to stress can impact the development of PTSD.

Environmental: People who live in a high-stress situation, such as in an impoverished area where violence is a part of daily life, may be at increased risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic event. Additionally, all of your life experiences play a part, such as the amount and severity of trauma one has experienced since childhood.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Existence of other mental health problems
  • Lack of a good support system
  • Being abused or neglected as a child

Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The symptoms of PTSD can develop suddenly or may begin gradually and worsen over time. Symptom presentation varies enormously among sufferers based upon co-occurring disorders, individual makeup, and symptom severity. The symptoms of PTSD are generally grouped into three different types and may include:

Re-Experiencing Symptoms:

  • Flashbacks – reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
  • Nightmares
  • Disruptions in everyday routine
  • Intense physical reactions to flashbacks
  • Severe distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Being triggered by words, objects, or situations that remind the person of the event

Avoidance Symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about event
  • Avoiding activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Avoiding certain places, events, or objects that remind a person of the trauma
  • Challenges recalling important parts of the traumatic event
  • General memory problems
  • Hopelessness about future
  • Trouble concentrating

Hyperarousal Symptoms:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Bering easily startled or frightened
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Feeling constantly tense or on-edge
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The long-term effects associated with PTSD can cause significant impairment for those diagnosed with this disorder. Additionally, PTSD can place an individual at a higher risk for developing a number of other mental health disorders and certain medical illnesses. Fortunately, proper treatment, support, and life style changes can help these individuals to move past their PTSD and lead happy lives.

Long-term, chronic problems that may develop, or get worse, over time due to untreated post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Loss of occupational or scholastic functioning
  • Decreased ability to have successful interpersonal relationships
  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Worsening physical health problems
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders:

Post-traumatic stress disorder often presents alongside other mental health disorders; 80% of those diagnosed with PTSD are struggling with another disorder. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Conduct disorder (children and teens)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (children and teens)
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Depressive disorders
  • Other anxiety disorders
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