What Are The PTSD Risk Factors?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 08/04/2022

Content Warning: This article mentions trauma-related topics which could potentially be triggering.


Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition that affects some individuals who have experienced a dangerous, frightening, or life-threatening trauma. About eight out of 100 people in the United States suffer from PTSD at some time in their lives, about eight million people. However, many will never know they have it. 

Although experiencing a traumatic event is common, not everyone will develop PTSD because of the incident. According to the experts, 75% of the individuals in the United States will experience trauma, but only about 8% will progress to PTSD. Scientists and researchers have been working for years to figure out why it affects some and not others.

Different Types Of Trauma

There are many different risk factors for PTSD, and it is difficult to list all of the causes. The trauma that causes PTSD can also be a long list, affecting everyone differently. This makes it difficult to determine who may develop PTSD. First of all, there are three types of trauma, which include:

  • Acute Trauma is the result of one life-threatening or severely stressful incident.
  • Chronic Trauma includes any kind of repeated or prolonged trauma—for example, domestic violence, bullying, and child abuse.
  • Complex Trauma is the result of more than one traumatic incident.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

What Are Some Of The Traumatic Incidents That Can Cause PTSD?

Because there are so many different types of traumatic incidents, and they differ in how people perceive them, making a complete list of traumatic incidents is impossible. However, some types of trauma are most often reported in those with PTSD. These are:

  • Natural disasters like a flood, earthquake, or tornado
  • Any kind of terrorist attack
  • Being a victim of kidnapping
  • Witnessing combat or war
  • Physically being attacked
  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of any type of life-threatening illness in yourself or a loved one
  • Vehicle accidents
  • Traumatic childbirth
  • Sexual assault
  • Any kind of abuse like sexual, physical, or emotional
  • Being bullied or harassed
  • Working as a first responder or a job where you often see violence

Risk Factors Of PTSD

Not everyone who experiences any of the above traumatic events will develop PTSD. But what makes some people more susceptible to PTSD than others? Why do some people suffer from PTSD from a certain event while others who experience the same event do not? The risk factors vary, but the most common are listed below.

Having A History Of Mental Health Disorders

If you have ever been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, including depression, anxiety, mood disorder, or personality disorder, you are more likely to experience PTSD from a traumatic incident. Even if you have not been diagnosed but have had symptoms of a mental illness, you can be more susceptible. Some of the signs of mental health disorders include: 

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Isolating yourself from friends and family
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleeping pattern changes
  • Feeling sad for no obvious reason for longer than two weeks
  • The anxiety that lasts for longer than two weeks or recurs
  • Trouble concentrating and making decisions
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or gain

Alcohol Use Disorder Or Drug Abuse

Also known as self-medication, many people who have been victims of some type of trauma use alcohol or drugs to make them “feel better.” For instance, someone with anxiety who has trouble sleeping may drink or take a drug to fall asleep easier. But since the effects always wear off and leave you feeling worse, addiction becomes a real risk. And with this comes a higher risk of PTSD from any kind of traumatic event.

Lack Of A Good Support System

When working through things and facing your troubles, it often helps to have someone to talk to who cares about you. Whether it is a family member, friend, or even a therapist, just having some type of support can help prevent PTSD. Those who do not have anyone to talk to or count on can find themselves dwelling on the trauma of trying to avoid the feelings by self-medicating or withdrawing from life.

Having A Relative With PTSD Or Another Mental Illness

Those with a relative who has experienced PTSD or any other type of mental illness are also at a higher risk. This may be due to genetics, or it could be environmental. For example, if your mother has PTSD from a previous incident like rape or assault, she may inadvertently create an environment that causes you to be more susceptible to PTSD.

Being A Victim Of A Previous Or Repeated Trauma

If you have been a victim of a traumatic incident before or experienced repeated trauma such as domestic abuse, your chances of developing PTSD from a future incident double. This may be due to the higher stress levels building up, or it could be that you already had PTSD but did not recognize the symptoms. That is why it is important to talk to someone if you have been through a traumatic incident.

Lasting Results From The Trauma

If you have a permanent injury or loss of income, for instance, the traumatic incident that caused it can seem like it never goes away. For example, if you were in a serious car accident and have a permanent injury like loss of a limb or traumatic brain injury, the trauma is still evident in your daily life. 

How To Know If You Have PTSD

There are many symptoms of PTSD, but you do not have to have all of them to be diagnosed with the disorder. Just having a few of the signs may mean that you need treatment. You can also take a PTSD test online to see if you may need help. Here are some of the most common signs of PTSD to look for:

  • Experiencing flashbacks or reliving the traumatic event
  • Having nightmares or night tremors
  • You may avoid certain places or people that remind you of the incident
  • Avoiding crowds or public places is common
  • You might not be able to feel happy no matter what happens
  • Insomnia is frequently a problem
  • You may be on edge or jumpy
  • Forgetting parts of the traumatic event is common
  • Concentrating and making decisions may be difficult
  • You may avoid everyone because you would rather be alone
  • Panic attacks may happen out of the blue (dizziness, fainting, chest pain, rapid or irregular heart rate, nausea, shaking, extreme fear, feeling like you may die)

Counseling For PTSD

One of the most popular treatments for PTSD is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. Another type of treatment for PTSD is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. For a more severe case of PTSD, your doctor may prescribe some kind of medication as well as therapy.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

CBT is goal-oriented short-term talk therapy with a hands-on approach to solving your problems. The end goal is to change your patterns of behavior and thinking that may be causing your PTSD. Some of CBT's core principles are that those with psychological problems can be taught different ways to cope with them. This can help relieve the symptoms so you can have a more productive and happy life.

Also, CBT concentrates on the fact that many (if not all) psychological problems are due to negative learned behaviors. In addition, mental health issues are based on negative or faulty ways of thinking. CBT helps you learn to recognize your cognitive distortions and find other ways to see things clearly. You will also be taught to cope with difficult situations and understand your fears instead of ignoring them.

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

EMDR uses your eye movement to change how memories are stored in your mind, reducing the symptoms of PTSD. Your therapist will use eye movements and left-right bilateral stimulation with taps or tones to stimulate a new learning process for your brain.

This type of therapy is done as you focus on your memories, so the memories' realism and extremeness are decreased. To process memories, EMDR uses eight phases, which include:

  1. History taking and treatment planning
  2. Preparing you for therapy by learning what the treatment plan is
  3. Assessment is when the therapist accesses one of your memories that is disturbing you the most. They will break down the memories into body sensation, affect, cognition, and image.
  4. This phase includes desensitizing you from memory with eye movement therapy while you remember the traumatic memory.
  5. Strengthening your positive cognitions with EMDR practices is done next.
  6. Taking note of your body responses while thinking of the incident to identify any disturbing elements is the sixth phase.
  7. Ending the session is done when the targeted memory is no longer distressing you.
  8. Phase Eight is a reevaluation to determine if the sessions worked as they should. 

Do Not Self-Diagnose

The best way to know if you have PTSD is to talk to a professional. Self-diagnosis is never a good idea, even if you happen to be a licensed mental health professional. You can talk to a counselor online who is experienced in treating PTSD. No need to make an appointment, and you do not even have to leave your house. To get started, take this online test to find out more.