It’s quite natural to feel fear and anxiety while in a dangerous situation. The fear triggers a fight-or-flight response that allows your body to decide in a split second whether to defend yourself from the danger or avoid it. This is a completely healthy reaction that has helped many individuals avoid harmful situations. In people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, this reaction is blunted. Individuals who have PTSD often feel anxiety and fear when the danger has long passed.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe condition that develops in some individuals after a dangerous event that involved the threat of or actual physical harm, such as sexual assault, serious injury, or threat of death. Individuals who develop PTSD may have been the individual who was harmed, their loved one may have been harmed, or witnessed as the event happened to a stranger. Many individuals who have experienced such traumatic events will struggle with reactions that range from anger, shock, fear, guilt, and anxiety, which are common and dissipate as time passes. An individual who has PTSD, however, will notice that these symptoms usually increase over time, often to the point of debilitation and inability to function in society.
Everyone handles stresses in different ways, just as everyone handles their fears, threats, and stresses uniquely. As such, not every individual who experiences a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, especially if the individual has adequate support following the event. Once considered to be a disorder that occurred only in war veterans, it’s now well-accepted that PTSD can develop in anyone. Some of the risks associated with developing post-traumatic stress disorder include:
- Strength of your emotional reaction
- The duration and intensity of the trauma
- If you felt powerless during the event
- The support you received after the event
Post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to such significant disability that virtually no part of the individual’s life is unaffected by the disorder. The symptoms and effects of PTSD are far-reaching, yet treatable with the proper amount of support, medications, and therapeutic interventions.
What are the Risk Factors for Developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
There are a number of reasons that an individual who experiences a traumatic event may go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. While not all of these risks are a definitive indicator that an individual will struggle with PTSD, there are some risk factors that may indicate the development of this severe mental illness:
- People who’ve had a history of traumatic event, especially in early life
- Becoming injured in the traumatic event
- Additional stressors post-event, such as job loss, divorce, loss of a loved one
- Seeing other people hurt or killed
- Individuals who lack social and emotional support following the event
- People who have a history of mental illness, notably depression and anxiety
- Individuals with a prior history of physical or sexual abuse
- Individuals who have a history of drug or alcohol addiction
- Individuals who were abused emotionally, physically, or sexually during childhood
- The event involved a very real threat to personal safety and potential death
While once considered a problem for soldiers coming home from combat, we now know that PTSD can occur to anyone at any age. In fact, PTSD is a relatively common mental illness. It’s been estimated that approximately 3.5% (or 7.7 million) adults in the United States suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder each year. It’s also believed that 8.7% of people in the United States will eventually grapple with this disorder.
There are a number of disorders that may co-occur with post-traumatic stress disorder. The most common co-occurring mental illnesses include:
- Depressive disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse
- Conduct disorder
Causes of PTSD
While there is not a single prognostic factor that indicates that an individual will develop post-traumatic stress disorder, there are a number of factors that may work together to cause the development of this disorder. The most common causes for PTSD include:
Genetic: Those who have a family history of mental illnesses are at a greater risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Brain Chemistry: Individuals of the female gender and those at younger ages at the time of the trauma may increase the risks for developing this disorder.
Environmental: Individuals of lower socioeconomic classes, lower levels of education, exposure to prior trauma, and childhood adversity are more prone to develop PTSD.
Psychological: Individuals who have emotional problems in childhood before the age of six (such as anxiety problems) as well as individuals who struggle with mental illnesses are at higher risks for developing this disorder.
Symptoms of PTSD
It’s very normal for individuals who have dealt with a traumatic event to experience some of the symptoms described below. Most of the time, these symptoms pass after a few weeks (acute stress disorder). If they do not, it’s likely that ASD has become PTSD, which can last for months or years following the event.
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder do fluctuate among individuals depending upon the existence of other mental illnesses, the ability to tolerate stress, and the support received from outside individuals. Common symptoms of PTSD may include the following:
Re-experiencing symptoms can lead to problems in an individual’s daily routine. These symptoms may begin as a thought and feeling or can be triggered by outside stimuli such as words, objects, or situations that remind the individual of the event can lead to these experiences. Re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD include:
- Flashbacks – or reliving the event over and over which may cause physical reactions such as racing heart or sweating
- Intrusive, frightening thoughts
- Exaggerated reactions to reminders of the events
- Intrusive memories
Anything that may remind an individual of the traumatic event can lead to the development of avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause an individual to change routines, such as driving an alternate route to avoid a hospital, or avoiding people who were also witnesses to the same trauma. Avoidance symptoms of PTSD include:
- Emotional numbing
- Withdrawing from loved ones
- Feeling detached from others
- Strong sense of guilt
- Extreme worrying
- Loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities
- Difficulties recalling the event
- Avoiding places, events, objects, or people that can trigger reminders of the event
Hyperarousal symptoms are often continuous symptoms, rather than triggered by reminders of the event, that can stress or induce anxiety in a person who has PTSD. These symptoms make carrying out activities of daily living challenging, if not impossible.
- Difficulties concentrating
- Difficulties sleeping
- Insomnia or other sleeping difficulties
- Feeling on edge
- Unusual jumpiness
- Exaggerated startle reflex
Effects of PTSD
Without proper treatment and management, PTSD can impact nearly every part of an individual’s life. The effects of this severe mental illness can range from mild to extremely dire, depending upon the individual and their life circumstances. Effects of PTSD can include:
- Social isolation
- Crumbling interpersonal relationships
- Job loss
- Financial difficulties
- Substance use and abuse
- Emotional deterioration
- Inability to trust others
- Eating disorders
- Worsening depression
- Worsening anxiety
- Inability to function in daily life
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors