Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been recurrent throughout human existence, but it was only in 1980 that experts created an official diagnosis. Initially, the opinion was that the condition only affected military veterans who experienced war violence. There are tales of the psychological impact of war trauma dating back to the Civil War. The term “ shell shock” originated from World War 1 and referred to soldiers experiencing PTSD symptoms following exposure to artillery shells' explosion.
Over the years, the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder has evolved as scientists learned more about the condition. It is proven that mental health disorders can affect anybody from any age group who has suffered trauma in any form.
PTSD is more prevalent than most people think. Up to 70 percent of people in the United States have been through a traumatic event at a time in their lives, and around 20 percent of them suffer PSTD due to that. This means that between seven to eight Americans will suffer PTSD at one stage of their lives, and the condition occurs in approximately eight million adults every year. When you consider these numbers, you probably know someone with PTSD.
For people living with PTSD, the symptoms can be disruptive to their daily lives. They can lead to relationship issues, trouble at work, social events, or complete routine tasks. Without treatment, PTSD can also put people at risk of depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and eating disorders.
Although mental health professionals and researchers have learned more about the condition, it can be difficult to predict who might be affected by PTSD accurately. Someone who has suffered multiple traumas may be more prone to developing PTSD, but the same person may have built resilience because they learned coping mechanisms.
Overview Of PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe mental health disorder triggered following the effect of or witnesses of a traumatic or extremely stressful incident, such as crimes, accidents, natural disasters, conflict/violence, and loss of a loved one, and physical or sexual abuse. The symptoms may include flashbacks, severe anxiety, memory loss, and nightmares, as well as overpowering thoughts about the incident.
Most people who experience traumatic incidents may struggle to adjust and cope with their usual routine temporarily. They may have to deal with powerful feelings such as shock, fear, anger, or guilt. It takes time and proper self-care to recover. However, if the symptoms worsen, persist for months or years, and disrupt your daily functions, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder. Proper treatment intervention following a PTSD diagnosis is crucial for alleviating symptoms and improving normal functions.
The causes Of PTSD
The origin of PTSD, going by research, is witnessing, experiencing, or hearing about a traumatic incidence and how you process it mentally after it happened. This is why it is prevalent among people who have been through military combat. They may have seen or committed acts of violence or heard about the passing of a fellow combatant.
Unfortunately, life-changing trauma can also occur in day-to-day life. However, how people define traumatic events often vary. Whether or not you develop PTSD depends mostly on how you process the experience. For PTSD to occur, the person needs to perceive a particular event or condition as traumatizing.
Aside from military combat, common types of traumatic events associated with PTSD include:
- Sexual abuse – including assault, rape, childhood abuse, and sexual violence from a spouse. Usually, the people who suffer sexual abuse within a relationship setting have also experienced childhood sexual abuse. A history of these forms of abuse puts you at a higher risk of developing PTSD.
- Childhood abuse – this can be emotional, physical, or verbal.
- Physical assault – bodily harm coming from getting beaten, hit, or experiencing physical violence in any form can be traumatizing.
- Natural disaster – experiencing distressful natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes can cause trauma, especially if you lost a loved one or your home.
- Violent threats – being a victim of a robbery, terrorist attack, or threats involving a gun or other violent weapons.
- An accident – surviving a car or plane crash can cause trauma.
- Medical diagnosis – getting a diagnosis of a life-threatening condition for you or someone close
- Acts of terror – experiencing bombings or mass shootings.
- Death – the sudden loss of someone close
These incidents can trigger dread, prompting the body to respond in “fight or flight” survival mode. Additionally, the brain's parts that react to stress can be altered by extreme or prolonged stress from trauma. Following a trauma, the brain may have trouble regulating hormones like before, potentially producing an excess of stress hormones. These chemical changes alter how you handle stressors in the future.
One’s genes and social experiences, like childhood treatment, play a part in their brain’s development. The state of the brain before a trauma might be the reason some people develop PTSD.
Risk Factors Of PTSD
Researchers point to several risk factors that can increase the chances of PTSD. However, just because some of the risk factors are present is not enough to conclude someone will certainly develop PTSD – it only means their chances are more than someone who does not have those risk factors.
It is possible that when two people witness or suffer a similar traumatic event, only one person will eventually develop PTSD. The reason is that people have varying genetic and personality natures, as well as varying psychological strengths. The risk factors can be classified into three categories depending on the trauma stages: before, during, and after.
This is whatever history the person has before suffering the trauma. The risk factors include:
Age – people at a certain age in life can be at the risk of PTSD if they experience trauma. For instance, studies show that women may be at higher risk between 51 to 55 years old.
Gender – PTSD occurs more often in women than in men.
Genetics – Those with a family history of PTSD or anxiety might be at the risk of the mental health disorder, too; new studies suggest that having an ancestor within five generations who experienced trauma can increase one’s predisposition to PTSD
Personality traits – people who have poor coping mechanisms, are introverted, or have a negative perception of the world are at higher risk.
Past trauma – Suffering a traumatic incident or ongoing trauma such as abuse that caused PTSD increases the risk of suffering PTSD if another incident happens
Mental health history – people already dealing with other mental health disorders like depression or anxiety disorder are more at risk of developing PTSD.
These risk factors come directly from the person’s experience of the incident itself. These include:
Type of exposure – Duration of the trauma. Direct involvement, witnessing or hearing about it, in addition to whether it was repeated, and the amount of time it lasted.
Intensity – the emotions felt during the trauma; extreme fear, feeling trapped, or severe injury or death.
Perception – the person’s view of the incident as it unfolded
These risk factors are associated with what the person had access to immediately or eventually after the incident. These include:
Resources – meeting with a licensed therapist to process the events that happened individually or in a group setting with other people who have experienced the same ordeal can help with the recovery process. For instance, in the event of a natural disaster, having access to resources for financial relief or relocation can be incredibly beneficial.
Social support – having a social network, probably a therapy group or the presence of friends and close relatives, can make you feel less alone and safer. The sudden loss of one’s social network, which is common when people are forced to move following a natural disaster, can increase the risk of PTSD.
Managing a traumatic incident often boils down to perception and restoration of whatever was lost. Fortunately, it might be possible to prevent PTSD by being aware of your risk profile and receiving proper support soon after any traumatic incident. Scientists have discovered that among women who have experienced rape (a known cause of PTSD), knowing those with PTSD risk factors can help professionals give the appropriate support after the incidence. The earlier people receive help, the higher the chances of recovery and returning to regular functions.
People can also be proactive about improving their coping mechanisms for future sake. Adopt a lifestyle that involves a high level of balance. Experts suggest practicing self-care routines, which often makes healing and recovery after trauma easier. These self-care routines fall into different categories, all of which can be customized to meet your needs:
Physical: Exercising, stretching, getting adequate sleep, eating nutrient-rich foods, dedicating time to engage in fun tasks, taking breaks from technology, and intentionally making time to unwind often are all beneficial.
Psychological: Suggested strategies include dedicating time to self-reflection, journaling, therapy sessions, introspection, practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, learning, and engaging your brain in different ways, like taking a course, visiting the art gallery, or learning an instrument.
Emotional: Ideas for emotional self-care include dedicating time to enjoy the company of loved ones, staying in touch with important people in your life, and dedicating time for self-affirmations that help boost self-esteem, reading your favorite book, watching a favorite movie, and identifying your happy and safe place or needs.
Spiritual: Commit time for quiet reflections, get close to nature, join a community that makes you feel safe and comfortable, meditate, and pray – all these helpful strategies for self-care.
Symptoms Of PTSD
Most people who witness or go through a traumatic incident will experience a form of distress afterward. It is normal to react to trauma. However, time and good coping strategies can help with recovery. Therefore, professionals have devised specific rules to know if you have PTSD.
PTSD symptoms are classified into four groups. For a diagnosis, the person needs to exhibit one symptom, each from the first two categories and two from the last two categories. The symptoms also need to have been present for more than a month. The four groups of PTSD symptoms include:
Intrusive memories (re-experiencing)
- Disturbing dreams or nightmares about the incident
- Persistent, unwanted memories of the event
- Flashbacks and physical responses within the body as if the event were occurring again
- Intense psychological or physiological distress following exposure to something that serves as a reminder, no matter how small
- Evading feelings, thoughts, and memories about the incident
- Avoiding activities, places, people, and anything that serves as a reminder or feels like a potential threat
Negative changes to mood and thoughts
- Memory issues – suffering partial memory loss about the incident and impaired short-term memory .afterward
- Problem maintaining close relationships.
- Detachment from family members
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Emotional numbness
- Taking the blame or blaming others for the event
- Inability to experience positive feelings like love or happiness
- Dealing with recurrent feelings of anger, guilt, shame, fear, horror, or hopelessness
Changes in physical or emotional response
- Being startled or frightened easily
- Poor sleep or inability to sleep
- Poor concentration
- Susceptibility to angry outbursts, aggressiveness, or irritability
- Devastating guilt or shame
- A reckless or self-destructive behavior, like speeding or drinking excessively
- Being constantly alert and sensitive to perceived threats or danger
The intensity of PTSD symptoms often varies in intensity over time. The symptoms may increase when you feel stressed or encounter reminders of what you experienced. For instance, you may hear a loud bang, and the overwhelming thoughts of combat come rushing. Or you may read news of sexual assault and unwillingly remember your own assault.
When To Seek Professional Help
Although you cannot get an official diagnosis of PTSD until 30 days after a traumatic event, it is advisable to see a professional after witnessing or experiencing an extremely stressful event or whenever you are experiencing any of the signs mentioned above. If the symptoms disrupt your normal life, it is an indication that professional help will be beneficial for processing the traumatic incident. Experiencing these symptoms for over two to three weeks is a normal warning sign, which, without intervention, can lead to a PTSD diagnosis.
Undergoing therapy at any time following a traumatic event can help set the path to healing. Talk therapy and medications can be highly beneficial for treating and managing PTSD. Also, people who are open to assistance tend to recover faster than those who choose to heal alone. To find out if you are dealing with symptoms of PTSD, take our assessment test.