Posttraumatic stress disorder can often times be hidden in plain sight, making it difficult to identify. Understanding and recognizing the signs, symptoms, risks and more is the first step in the recovery journey.
Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder
Originally understood as the aftereffects of war on certain military veterans, we now know that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can affect anyone. PTSD is caused by exposure to a traumatic event or frightening experience such as sexual assault, war, natural disaster, accidents or the threat of death to oneself or a loved one. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a long-lasting consequence of incredibly traumatic events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.
Most people who have been exposed to traumatic events develop feelings of anger, shock, fear, guilt, and anxiety. These are completely normal reactions to an unnatural event and will fade over time. A person who has PTSD develops unusually strong feelings after such an event that they prevent an individual from living a purposeful life. Unfortunately, the symptoms of PTSD do not fade over time, these feelings intensify until the person is overwhelmed and unable to function.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop at any age, even during the first year of life. Symptoms most often begin to appear within the first three months following the incident but can present months or years later.
Certain individuals exposed to a disturbing experience may develop symptoms directly after experiencing the event. This is called acute stress disorder. People who have acute stress disorder experience a varying presentation and duration of symptoms, but most recover within three months of the precipitating event. Some people who have acute stress disorder experience longer periods of symptoms that can be triggered by memories of the trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can impact every area of a person’s life, but with proper management and support, this disorder can be treated.
PTSD is a much more common disorder than previous studies have suggested, occurring throughout all age groups – including children under the age of one. The lifetime risk for developing PTSD in U.S. adults is 3.5%. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is lower for those of European, African, Asian, and Latin American cultures at 0.5%-1.0%. Increased rates of PTSD are notable in those who have jobs that place them at risk for being a part of a traumatic event, such as police officers, nurses, and firefighters. The highest rates for PTSD occur among sexual assault survivors, military veterans who have been in combat, and survivors of genocide.
Causes and risk factors for PTSD
Researchers generally believe that post-traumatic stress disorder is not caused by one single factor; rather a variety of risk factors and predispositions that work together to cause the development of PTSD following a traumatic event. The most commonly cited causes for PTSD include:
Genetic: Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. People who have first-degree relatives who struggle with anxiety disorders are at a greater risk for developing the disorder themselves. While not a definitive cause for PTSD, it does make a person more vulnerable to developing the disorder after a traumatic event.
Brain Structures: It’s believed that certain areas of the brain that regulate emotions and fear are different than those who do not develop PTSD after a traumatic event.
Environmental: Those who have a history of trauma and stress are more likely to develop PTSD than those who do not have a similar history. Also, children who grow up in families where addiction is present are at greater risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychological: People who struggle with certain types of mental illness, notably anxiety and depression, are at a higher risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD
There are a number of symptoms that can occur following exposure to a traumatic event. The symptoms will vary in severity based upon individual makeup, co-occurring mental disorders, and support system.
Persistent, Invasive, or Intrusive Symptoms – symptoms are connected to the precipitating trauma and begin after the event:
- Intrusive, invasive, involuntary distressing memories of the events
- Dissociative episodes (flashbacks) during which the individual feels they are re-experiencing the event
- Prolonged emotional distress when faced with triggers of the trauma
- Physiological reactions to triggers of the event
Avoidance Symptoms – these behaviors attempt to reduce the level of suffering of a person by avoiding triggers and memories of the event.
- Avoidance (or attempts to avoid) people, places, activities, conversations, objections, and situations that may lead to disconcerting thoughts, feelings, or memories of the trauma
- Efforts made to avoid anything that triggers distressing memories, feelings, or thoughts of the event
Negative Mood Symptoms – these symptoms begin with the event and worsen over time
- Inability to remember parts of the traumatic event
- Negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world
- Distorted thoughts about the trauma that lead to assigning blame for the event to themselves or another person
- Constant negative mood state
- Inability to feel pleasure
- Feeling disconnected from others
- Inability to feel positive emotions
Alterations in Arousal Symptoms:
- Angry outbursts without provocation
- Self-destructive behavior
- Difficulty concentrating
- Exaggerated startle response
- Sleep problems
Other symptoms of PTSD may include:
- Depersonalization: Feeling detached from your body, as though you’re looking down from above
- De-realization: Feeling as if you’re walking on water, in a dream or alternate reality
Effects of PTSD
The effects of PTSD touch every area of an individual’s life leaving virtually nothing unscathed. The longer that PTSD exists without treatment, the greater the effects of PTSD on a person’s life. The most common effects of post-traumatic stress disorder may include:
- Eating disorders
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Inability to maintain stable relationships
- Dissociative symptoms
- Difficulty feeling emotions
- Sleep problems
- Substance abuse
- Social phobia
- Difficulty maintaining job
- Self-harm; self-mutilation
- Suicidal thoughts, attempts or completed suicide
PTSD and co-occurring disorders
It has been estimated that as many as 80% of individuals diagnosed with PTSD are also diagnosed with at least one other disorder. The most common disorders that co-occur with PTSD include:
- Major depression
- Bipolar disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Adjustment disorders
- Substance use disorders
- Personality disorders