Signs and Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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Understanding PTSD

Learn about PTSD

Most people feel frightened, anxious, sad, and disconnected following a traumatic experience. Other people find that their symptoms don’t disappear within a few days or months and go on to develop PTSD. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental health disorder triggered by exposure to a terrifying event. PTSD symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Fear is the body’s natural reaction to danger and triggers the body to prepare to either defend itself or flee from the perceived threat. This fight-or-flight response is a healthy emotional and physical reaction designed to help protect an individual from harm. People with PTSD, however, have a damaged or changed fight-or-flight response, which can leave them feeling extremely frightened or stressed even after they’re no longer in danger.

PTSD can affect people at any age, however, not everyone who lives through a traumatic event will go on to develop PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder has a different developmental course for 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 after 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
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Child neglect
  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Car accidents
  • Physical assault

With proper medication, support, and therapeutic interventions, most people are able to move on with their life.


PTSD statistics

Each year, about 5.2 million adults in the United States struggle with PTSD, which represents 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 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

Causes and risk factors for PTSD

The primary cause for PTSD is experiencing, witnessing, or learning about an event that causes intense fear, helplessness, and dread. However, researchers are not sure why some individuals develop this disorder 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. Some of the causes for PTSD may include:

Genetic: People who have first-degree relatives with anxiety disorders or other types of mental illness are at greater risk for developing PTSD after exposure to a particularly traumatic event.

Physical: Neuroimaging studies conducted on the brains of people who have PTSD have 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.

Environmental: People who live in high-stress situations, such as in impoverished areas 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 such as the amount and severity of trauma one has experienced since childhood can have an impact.

Risk Factors:

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

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD may develop suddenly or can begin gradually and worsen over time. Symptoms present themselves in a variety of different ways among sufferers based upon co-occurring disorders, individual makeup, and symptom severity. The symptoms of PTSD are generally grouped into three different types and can include:

Re-Experiencing Symptoms:

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

Avoidance Symptoms:

  • 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
  • Emotional numbing
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about event
  • Avoiding activities once enjoyed
  • Trouble concentrating

Hyperarousal Symptoms:

  • Bering easily startled or frightened
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Feeling constantly tense or on-edge
  • Irritability or anger
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren’t there


Effects of PTSD

If not properly treated, the long-term effects that accompany PTSD can cause significant impairment in the lives of those struggling with this disorder. Additionally, the presence of PTSD can place a person at higher risk for developing a number of other mental health disorders and certain medical illnesses. Fortunately, proper treatment, support, and lifestyle changes can help people move past their PTSD and go on to lead happy, healthy lives. Long-term problems that may develop, or get worse, due to untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, include:

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

Co-Occurring Disorders

PTSD and co-occurring disorders

It is rare that post-traumatic stress disorder occurs on its own; it often presents alongside other mental health disorders. In fact 80% of those diagnosed with PTSD struggling with another disorder. Some of the most common comorbid, co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Depressive disorders
  • Other anxiety disorders
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