Causes, Signs, & Effects of PTSD

Are you concerned that you or a loved one may be struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder? Learn about the causes, signs, and effects to identify whether professional treatment may be necessary.

Understanding PTSD

Learn about PTSD

The distressing symptoms that can develop after immediate or recurring traumatic experiences can signal the onset of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Trauma is considered an unexpected event that the individual viewed as life-threatening and uncontrollable, such as experiencing or witnessing abuse and/or violence, natural or manmade disasters, military combat, or terrifying injuries. An individual can also develop PTSD from witnessing events without having them happen to him or her directly, but rather by witnessing them or learning about them.

An individual who battles PTSD might experience repetitive, invasive memories of the traumatic event. These memories can come through as nightmares or flashbacks, which can grow so intense that the individual actually loses touch with reality and sees the experience as occurring again. In an effort to avoid these reactions, an individual might attempt to avoid people or situations that could remind them of that experience. A person’s mood, attitudes, behavioral patterns, and perceptions can be altered dramatically. In many cases, individuals with PTSD might have problems sleeping or relaxing, struggle with anger or irritability, and have trouble experiencing happiness.

Fortunately, there are treatment centers equipped to help those grappling with PTSD. By seeking care for PTSD, a person can begin to live a life that is no longer compromised by this devastating condition.


PTSD statistics

Within a given year, nearly 3.5% of Americans will struggle with PTSD. The average risk of developing this disorder at some point in life is 8.7%. Military veterans are at the greatest risk for experiencing PTSD symptoms, as their chances of developing this condition are approximately 75%.

Causes & Risk Factors

Learn what is known about the causes of PTSD

A diagnosis of PTSD cannot be given without the occurrence of a previous trauma. There are additional factors that can add to an individual’s chances of developing PTSD after a trauma, including:

Genetic factors: A traumatic experience is more likely to cause PTSD in an individual who is genetically predisposed to developing this condition. Those with a first-degree family member with a mental illness, such as PTSD or anxiety, are more likely to develop PTSD if they experience trauma.

Environmental factors: In addition to genetic factors, an individual’s environment can also impact his or her chances of developing PTSD after a trauma. Specific childhood experiences, including poverty, can increase an individual’s risk of developing PTSD. Additionally, the nature of the event itself can impact one’s risk of PTSD. Lastly, exposure to multiple traumatic events, or repeated events, can also add to one’s risk of developing this disorder.

Risk factors:

  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Being a victim of abuse
  • Lack of social support
  • Poor coping abilities
  • Gender (females suffer from PTSD more often than males)
  • History of interpersonal violence or domestic violence
  • Experiencing traumatic events as a child
  • Being a racial or ethnic minority

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can fall into three major categories: re-experiencing symptoms, which are the reminders of the experience itself; avoidance symptoms, which include attempts to avoid places, people, or situations linked to the trauma; and hyperarousal symptoms, which includes increased alertness or awareness of one’s surroundings.

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Elevated physiological responses, including difficulty breathing, rapid heart rate, and sweating
  • Involuntary, intrusive, or distressing memories of the trauma
  • Flashbacks, or strong dissociative reactions that cause a person to feel as though he or she is in the midst of the traumatic experience again.
  • Nightmares or intense, disturbing dreams

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Intentionally staying away from people, places, situations, or conversations that remind a person of the trauma
  • Attempting to not think about thoughts, memories, or feelings associated with the traumatic event
  • Feeling detached from life or hopeless about the future
  • Difficulty feeling, or inability to feel, positive emotions
  • Difficulty remembering details about the traumatic experience

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Jumpiness
  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Engaging in risky, reckless, or self-destructive behaviours
  • Excessive alertness to one’s environment (“hypervigilance”)


Effects of PTSD

If PTSD symptoms remain untreated, the mental and physical symptoms of it can lead to the following effects within an individual’s life:

  • Suicidal thinking
  • Suicide
  • Family relational distress
  • Relationship problems
  • Homelessness
  • Additional mental disorders
  • Violence and reckless activity
  • Substance abuse
  • Poor work performance
  • Loss of employment

Co-Occurring Disorders

PTSD and co-occurring disorders

The onset of PTSD heightens the chances of developing an additional mental health condition(s). The most common disorders that can occur alongside of PTSD include:

  • Conduct disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major neurocognitive disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
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