PTSD Causes & Effects

The signs, symptoms, and effects of PTSD can look different for each person impacted. Learning about posttraumatic stress disorder is one of the first steps toward healing.

Understanding PTSD

Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder

In the event a person directly experiences, witnesses, or learns about a trauma that involves an actual or perceived threat of serious harm, violence, or death, it is possible that that individual could go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder. Also commonly referred to as PTSD, this serious mental disorder can significantly impair a person’s functioning and disrupt multiple areas of life if treatment is not sought.

Experiencing a trauma or being repeatedly exposed to trauma can cause symptoms of PTSD to manifest shortly after the event or events, or they can begin to emerge long after the trauma(s) initially occurred. Those suffering from this disorder experience a wide range of symptoms, including intrusive or re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, adverse cognitive symptoms, and/or hyperarousal symptoms that occur in response to the following types of trauma:

  • Exposure to war
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual violence
  • Manmade or natural disasters
  • Accidents
  • Incidents that occur during a medical procedure
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Kidnapping
  • Hostage situations
  • Torture

When symptoms of PTSD become apparent, it is important to seek treatment in order to avoid the negative effects that are known to happen when symptoms are allowed to persist. Fortunately, there are several treatment options that exist that can greatly improve the lives of those who are suffering from this debilitating mental disorder.


PTSD statistics

Research shows that the diagnosis of PTSD is more common among certain individuals when compared to others. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, men and women who are serving or who have served in the military have higher rates of the disorder as compared to the rest of the American population. Additionally, those who are employed as emergency medical staff, police, firefighters, and other such vocations are more often diagnosed than people who work in other professions due to more ongoing exposure to types of trauma. Women are also more likely to suffer from this condition, as well as experience symptoms for a longer period of time, due to the greater likelihood that they can experience interpersonal trauma more frequently than men. Lastly, the American Psychiatric Association reported that the prevalence of PTSD among people living in the United States is approximately 3.5 percent.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for PTSD

While a diagnosis of PTSD requires that an individual experiences, witnesses, or learns about a form of trauma before the onset of symptoms, there are certain influences and risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to experiencing symptoms synonymous with posttraumatic stress disorder. Consider the following:

Genetic: Individuals who have a family history of certain mental illnesses are at greater risk for the development of PTSD following a traumatic experience. Those with a family history of panic disorder, depressive disorders, or obsessive-compulsive disorder are more vulnerable to being diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder after experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a trauma or traumas.    

Environmental: The environment in which one spends his or her time can significantly impact whether or not a person comes to suffer from PTSD. Given the fact that this condition occurs in direct response to some form of trauma, environmental influences such as natural or manmade disasters, having been victimized, and exposure to violence or other horrific circumstances can cause a person to suffer from symptoms of PTSD.

Risk Factors:

  • Displaying emotional disturbances during childhood prior to the trauma(s)
  • Personal history of other mental health concerns prior to the trauma(s)
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Having less education
  • Experiencing family dysfunction during childhood
  • Lacking effective coping skills
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Having an inadequate support system
  • Being female
  • Serving in the military

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of PTSD

Depending on the severity of the trauma that is experienced, witnessed, or learned about, the signs of PTSD can vary. Additionally, depending on the individual’s age, posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms can appear differently from person to person. The following behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms are those that could indicate that an individual is suffering from PTSD:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Playing out themes or events reminiscent of the trauma (children only)
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Avoiding certain people, conversations, places, situations, or objects that are reminiscent of the trauma
  • Lacking participation in things that were once enjoyed
  • Social isolation
  • Aggressive outbursts
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Self-harm
  • Tearfulness
  • Substance abuse

Physical symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Injury as a result of reckless behaviors
  • Perspiration

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Distressing memories
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Memory impairment
  • Paranoia
  • Problems with concentrating
  • Depersonalization
  • Derealization

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Feeling as though no one can be trusted
  • Anger
  • Increased anxiety
  • Inability to experience pleasure or positive emotions
  • Oscillating emotions
  • Feeling of fear or horror
  • Self-blame or blaming others
  • Irritability


Effects of PTSD

When an individual suffers from PTSD and does not seek treatment to alleviate his or her distressing symptoms, there are a number of consequences that can occur as a result. Below are examples of what could potentially happen if an individual continues to suffer from PTSD symptoms long-term:

  • Problems within relationships or a demise of social relationships
  • Decline in occupational performance
  • Physical disability
  • Financial struggles
  • Frequent use of medical services
  • Hindered ability to perform well in academic settings
  • Job loss
  • Expulsion from school
  • Onset of additional mental health concerns
  • Substance abuse, which could lead to addiction and/or dependency
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts
  • Death as a result of drug overdose or suicide

Co-Occurring Disorders

PTSD and co-occurring disorders

Posttraumatic stress disorder frequently occurs alongside other mental disorders. Whether the onset of additional mental health symptoms precede the trauma that led to the onset of PTSD or if they developed following the trauma, the following mental disorders are among those that can be diagnosed at the same time as posttraumatic stress disorder:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Major neurocognitive disorder

I now am on the road to recovery because of the process groups and my personal therapist at Southcoast. Thank you for helping me get my life together. I am forever grateful!

– Anonymous Client
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