Trauma & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Causes, Signs, Symptoms & Side Effects

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 the individual’s ability to cope.

Most individuals who have been exposed to these sorts of 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 such unusually strong feelings after such an event that they prevent him or her from living a purposeful life. Unfortunately the symptoms of PTSD aren’t reduced over time; usually these feelings intensify until the individual 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. Individuals facing acute stress disorder have a varying presentation and duration of symptoms, but most recover within three months of the precipitating event. Certain people with acute stress disorder do have longer periods of symptoms that can be triggered by memories or emotions 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. You do not have to define yourself by PTSD.

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Co-Occurring Disorders

The following disorders and issues frequently present at the same time as PTSD:

  • Prior traumatic events
  • Panic disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Oppositional defiant disorder

Statistics on Trauma

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 US 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 of PTSD

Factors that may cause one individual to develop PTSD after an inconceivable ordeal are divided into three categories: pretraumatic, peritraumatic, and post-traumatic factors.

Pretraumatic Factors:

  • Genetic and Biological – Females who are in their young adult years during the trauma are more likely to develop PTSD.
  • Environmental – Environmental factors that place an individual at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder include less formal education, being exposed to other traumas (especially during childhood), having a lower socioeconomic status, childhood hardships, dysfunctional family dynamics, parental separation, death of a parent, self-blaming characteristics, family history of other psychiatric disorders, and being of lower overall intelligence.
  • Temperamental – Emotional problems experienced by a child before age six, like a traumatic event. A past history of mental health disorders such as panic disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or history of PTSD.

Peritraumatic Events:

  • Environmental – there are several environmental factors that can increase the chances for developing PTSD during the event including the gravity of the trauma. The greater the intensity of the trauma, the more likely one is to develop PTSD. Other factors include perceiving the trauma as being life-threatening, sustained personal injury, and trauma perpetrated by a caregiver (in children). For individuals in the military, triggers can include perpetration of violence, killing an enemy, and seeing horrors. If dissociation occurs during trauma and persists following the event, there is a higher chance that PTSD will develop.
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Post-Traumatic Factors:

  • Environmental – many environmental factors can lead to the development of PTSD. These include triggers and exposures of the trauma and inadequate social support following the event.
  • Temperamental – inappropriate coping skills, negative appraisals of the situation as well as the development of acute stress disorder can lead to the development of PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

While symptoms of PTSD can vary wildly among individuals, the most common symptoms include:

Intrusive Symptoms – these symptoms are connected to the precipitating trauma and begin after the event.

  • Flashbacks, or dissociative reactions, that cause an individual to feel as though he or she is reliving the trauma
  • Involuntary, persistent and distressing memories of the trauma
  • Prolonged and powerful emotional distress to stimuli that remind an individual of the traumatic event
  • Physiological reactions to triggers of the trauma
  • Repeated nightmares about the trauma

Avoidance Symptoms – avoidance symptoms attempt to reduce the level of suffering by an individual by avoiding memories and triggers of the distressing event.

  • Avoidance (or attempts to avoid) people, places, activities, objects, conversations, and situations that may lead to disconcerting thoughts, feelings, or memories that remind the individual of their trauma
  • Efforts or avoidance of memories, thoughts or feelings associated with the event

Negative Mood Symptoms – this type of symptom begins with the event and worsens over time.

  • Inability to feel positive emotions
  • Constant negative emotions
  • Overstated negative belief about oneself, others and the world
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Inability to recall a large part of the event
  • Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Distortion of thoughts about the trauma that lead to feelings of assigning blame for the event, either to oneself or others

Alterations in Arousal Symptoms – these symptoms usually start when the trauma begins and worsen over time.

  • Extreme startle reflex
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Acting foolishly and recklessly
  • Behaving in self-destructive manners
  • Problems concentrating
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Feeling on edge, hypervigilant

Effects of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a chronic disorder that is able to be managed with proper treatment and support. However, untreated PTSD can cause many negative effects upon health and well-being. These effects include:

  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Chronic pain disorders
  • Heart disease
  • Drug abuse and addiction
  • Alcoholism
  • Musculoskeletal conditions
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions
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