What Causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Updated October 31, 2019

What Causes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that affects millions in the United States. With over 3 million recorded cases each year, it's far more common than most people realize.

This disorder occurs when someone has a stressful or frightening experience or witnesses a disturbing event. Since many PTSD symptoms could be associated with other mental health disorders, a medical diagnosis is necessary to confirm this condition.

Despite the severity of some symptoms, doctors and psychologists have established a few highly-effective treatments involving medication and therapy.

What makes PTSD difficult to recognize is that the onset of symptoms and their duration vary from one person to another. PTSD may last only a few months or may persist for years. Symptoms like volatile emotions and erratic behavior may lie dormant for a long time until an external trigger brings back a flood of traumatic memories.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Symptoms usually show up within a few weeks of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, but they may also appear years later.

When they appear, symptoms can be highly disruptive, affecting social life, work situations, and personal relationships. Often, they make it almost impossible for a person to think rationally, manage their emotions, or control their behavior.

Someone with PTSD may have recurring memories, flashbacks, or nightmares. They may try to handle their severe emotional reaction by avoiding talking or thinking about the trauma or avoiding going to places or meeting people who remind them about the painful event.

They may negatively view themselves, other people, or the world; feel helpless and hopeless about their future; and have intense difficulty developing close friendships or intimate relationships.

They often feel detached, finding it difficult to relate to the interests of their family or friends and show a lack of interest in many of the things they once enjoyed. Since they feel emotionally numb, they rarely appreciate any positive experiences.

It’s not unusual for them to control their tendency to get quickly startled or easily frightened by viewing everyone and every event with suspicion or doing self-destructive things to distract themselves, like getting drunk or provoking heated arguments or driving recklessly. 

Because of a continuous state of hypervigilance against possible dangers, they have trouble sleeping, concentrating, or suppressing their irritability or aggression. When they do mull over the past, they focus on unpleasant memories, events that trigger guilt, shame, remorse, or regret. 

Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)  

Any dangerous, threatening, humiliating, or frightening incident can cause PTSD. A car accident, a physical assault, rape, mugging, robbery, illness, or childbirth trauma could cause it.

While a traumatic event is the obvious cause of PTSD, researchers have long puzzled over why some people develop this disorder while others who experienced similar startling events did not show any signs of it.

One probable answer emerged based on new research on genetic data from a diverse study of 200,000 people, the largest to date, suggesting that PTSD is a psychiatric disorder with a genetic element.

Scientists from over 130 organizations who took part in the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium discovered that PTSD is strongly influenced by genetics. Reporting their findings in Nature Communications, they said that 5-20% of PTSD variability after a disturbing experience was due to genes.

The study also identified PTSD as polygenic because it affected thousands of variants in a genome, each one contributing a little to the psychic shock of an experience. Since six loci could be responsible for variants linked to the mental disorder, it suggested that PTSD was not just a reaction to an external event but also the activation of biological pathways.

Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Fortunately, clinical researchers have found many successful methods to treat PTSD. Although the rate of success is higher if someone seeks treatment soon after a trauma, treatment can still be effective if the event occurred a long time ago or the symptoms only showed up years later.

After someone visits a psychotherapist or psychiatrist, treatment starts by monitoring symptoms to see whether they will improve on their own or if they will get worse with no medication or therapy.

If they do show a tendency to get worse, a medical professional may suggest an antidepressant, like mirtazapine, or a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), like sertraline.

Medical professionals also recommend psychological therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Healing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 

Regrettably, many people with PTSD do not seek treatment. This is rarely because their symptoms are not disruptive but more likely because they are unaware that they have this disorder or because they have a resistance to asking for help.

Receiving help and support for PTSD is life-changing. It reduces overreacting to normal life stressors with guilt, depression, anger, anxiety, or dread. It also reduces the debilitating psychological effects of constantly thinking about the traumatic event.

While it’s possible to get some relief from the symptoms of PTSD and prevent them from getting worse by talking to family and friends or getting support from a faith-based community, the best form of help is psychiatric therapy. 

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