A person who experiences or witnesses a terrifying or shocking event can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD may include flashbacks, severe anxiety, and nightmares. Individuals who are affected by this condition may find themselves unable to stop thinking about the event that triggered their PTSD.
With self-care and healthy coping strategies, people may recover from this disorder. On the other hand, PTSD can worsen. It may last for months or years and impact every aspect of a person’s life. Treatment is essential for people who have this disorder, as it can help them develop strategies for effectively managing triggers.
What It Takes to Develop PTSD
Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event is all it takes to trigger the development of PTSD. In some cases, the symptoms of this condition begin to appear within a month of the traumatic event. Others may experience delayed-onset PTSD. The condition can develop quickly or even six months or longer after the event.
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing who will develop PTSD. After a traumatic event, most people will struggle with fear, nightmares, anxiety, and symptoms that denote their psychological and even physiological distress, but as PTSD develops, the individual gets “stuck” in these symptoms. They can’t return to their normalized state—at least not without help.
People wondering “Do I have PTSD?” may be interested to know that this condition seems to involve certain risk factors, but more research needs to be performed. For instance, a person might be at increased risk for the condition if they’ve experienced significant trauma in their life. The severity of this trauma or even the length of time a person was exposed to it can heighten the risk for developing PTSD. A person who has some inherited health risks for conditions like depression or anxiety may also be at increased risk for PTSD to develop after they’ve witnessed or experienced a traumatic event.
Researchers also suggest that a person’s temperament may have some bearing on the disorder’s development, and that’s not all. The PTSD fight/flight response may have some chemical and hormonal factors, too. This means that PTSD may develop as a result of both physical and psychological risk factors.
Most Common Causes of PTSD
Historically, people associated PTSD with experiences related to combat and war. It has been known as “shell shock” and “combat fatigue,” but these terms are misleading as PTSD triggers are far more varied. For example, a person who has been physically or sexually abused once or on a chronic basis can develop PTSD. Most common causes of PTSD include:
- Death of a loved one
- Natural disasters (i.e. earthquake, hurricane)
- A fire disaster
- Childhood neglect
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Car or plane crash
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Terrorist attack
Though this is a list of the most common causes of PTSD, it is by no means an exhaustive one. A dog attack, for instance, could cause PTSD to develop. Witnessing something horrific—a co-worker’s sudden death, for example—could trigger the condition, too.
What Is a Secondary Trauma?
The medical community is also quite clear that this condition can affect a person who witnesses a traumatic event as severely as the individual who experiences the event. For example, witnessing the abuse or an assault of one’s mother or another family member can trigger the development of PTSD.
These witnessed events are known as “secondary traumas.” Though the primary trauma happens to someone else, it can still adversely impact the person who witnesses it. In fact, they may have the same PTSD symptoms as the trauma victim.
Exposure to secondary trauma may involve loved ones or even strangers. Symptoms of PTSD can manifest after witnessing the trauma in person or even, in some cases, on television or social media. Even some mental health professionals may develop symptoms of PTSD in the course of their job and repeated exposure to other people’s traumatic experiences.
Does PTSD Manifest in “Episodes” or a Constant “On-Edge?”
The short answer to this question is “both.” Some people with PTSD will experience acute episodes where their symptoms overwhelm them. However, they may also find that their symptoms are not constant and instead occur in one episode rather than in an ongoing way. These episodes may involve obvious triggers—a violent movie scene or a jarring noise.
On the other hand, sometimes an individual can’t identify why symptoms suddenly erupt. They may have experienced a nightmare that their conscious mind doesn’t recall. They may only be feeling down and then suddenly they’re struggling with severe anxiety and other PTSD symptoms.
Those who have PTSD may feel continuously on-edge. Their anxiety, irritability, and other symptoms may always be brewing just beneath the surface. Certain factors can perpetuate this heightened PTSD flight/fight state of being. For example, stressful situations at home or work may aggravate PTSD. Similarly, substance abuse or the presence of another mental or mood disorder can lead to severe and continuous PTSD symptoms.
The Fight-or-Flight Response in PTSD
We’re all endowed with a fight-or-flight response when we encounter an alarming or dangerous situation or experience. When facing a fearful situation, humans feel an innate urge to flee or remain and fight.
Many different experiences can trigger our fight or flight response. It’s up to our own internal hardwiring to help us gauge the threat and either flee or fight it. During the period of time when we’re experiencing this fight-or-flight mechanism, our heart rate increases and we sweat more. Our hearing may become more sensitive and we may even experience tunnel vision. Once the person gauges the threat and decides how to act, the symptoms of fight or flight dissipate.
For a person with PTSD, the fight-or-flight response gets stuck. During episodes, they don’t experience a quick dissipation of symptoms. In fact, people with PTSD may sense threats or danger everywhere even when they don’t exist. Their fight-or-flight response is always turned on, which means they’re living in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear.
What Can Trigger a PTSD Episode?
PTSD triggers may be internal, external, or both. Thoughts, feelings, and memories can trigger an episode involving severe PTSD symptoms. External triggers may involve places, situations, or even people. A bodily sensation can trigger an episode. Some common triggers for a PTSD episode include:
- Negative emotions (anger, sadness, fear)
- Muscle tension
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Smells or sounds
- Seeing something that is a reminder of the traumatic event
- A nightmare or sudden memory
- Words or phrases
- Visual cues
Again, this is not an exhaustive list but some of the more common ways that PTSD symptoms erupt.
Are Some People at Increased Risk for Developing PTSD?
Anyone can develop PTSD, but some individuals may be at greater risk than others. There are many different risk factors involved in the development of this condition. For example, a person who has a history of substance abuse or mental health disturbances/disorders is at heightened risk for developing PTSD. The stress involved in other mental health conditions can render a person less resilient when confronted with trauma that can lead to PTSD.
According to the National Center for PTSD, roughly six people out of 100 will develop PTSD at some point over the course of their lives. This statistic only reflects a very small number of people who will experience traumatic events. Of these, women are more vulnerable to the development of the condition; eight out of 100 women will develop PTSD while only four out of 100 men develop the condition.
No Shame or Stigma in Recognizing PTSD
PTSD is not a choice. It has nothing to do with an individual’s courage or strength. It is a mental disorder that affects men, women, and children. Some people may avoid or delay getting help with debilitating symptoms because they fear the stigma of a mental illness. In a given year, one in five adults experience a mental health condition. The medical community has reported that in a given year, as many as eight million adults will suffer from PTSD and nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population will suffer from this condition at some point in their lives.
In other words, psychological problems and conditions are commonplace in the U.S. as they are elsewhere in the world. In so many of these cases, the condition’s development is completely beyond the person’s control. Yet, people experiencing PTSD symptoms can exert some control by reaching out for help. Without treatment, PTSD can increase in severity. With treatment, it can be managed and overcome.
Treatments such as medications and therapy can greatly improve quality of life and help individuals to cope with PTSD triggers when they arise. Without medical care, PTSD can become chronic and become a life-long condition. With high-quality mental health treatment, individuals can achieve full recovery. There’s no shame or stigma in admitting the presence of PTSD symptoms, but it would be a shame not to reach out for help.