Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms & Causes

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms & Causes


About 3.5% of American adults develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) each year. PTSD is a mental health condition that triggers your body’s “fight or flight” stress response after experiencing a traumatic or distressing event. Some examples of events that may cause PTSD include gun violence, military combat, or intimate partner abuse.

Experiencing this condition can be challenging for your mind and body, causing symptoms like rapid heart rate, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. Fortunately, several treatment options can help manage symptoms, offer support, and improve your quality of life. Your exact treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms, but healthcare providers often recommend psychotherapy, medications, and support groups.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can cause a variety of emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms that affect your daily functioning. While everyone experiences some stress from time to time, symptoms of stress usually go away. However, PTSD symptoms persist even when you’re no longer in imminent danger or experiencing something stressful

Generally, you can expect PTSD symptoms to develop within three months of a traumatic event.

There are four categories of PTSD symptoms: re-experiencing, avoidance, arousal or reactivity, and cognition and mood.

Re-Experiencing

With PTSD, you may re-experience the trauma, which may cause symptoms such as:

  • Flashbacks to the traumatic event
  • Racing heart rate
  • Sweating

Avoidance

PTSD can often cause you to avoid certain situations out of fear of re-experiencing a similar traumatic event. As such, you may experience symptoms like:

  • Avoiding the location of the traumatic event
  • Withdrawal from people involved in the event 
  • Refusal to acknowledge feelings or memories from the event

Arousal and Reactivity

Several behavioral changes can occur as a result of PTSD. These symptoms are known as arousal or reactivity, which may manifest as:

Cognitive and Mood Changes

Living with PTSD not only interferes with your daily activities and behaviors but can also affect you emotionally. You may experience the following changes to your cognition (thinking) and mood:

  • Trouble remembering details of the traumatic event
  • Exaggerated feelings of blame or shame
  • Negative self-image
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities 
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Inability to feel positive emotions 

Symptoms in young people tend to look different. If your child or teenager experiences something traumatic and develops PTSD, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for changes in their behavior and mood.

In children younger than six years old, symptoms of PTSD may include:

  • Frequent bedwetting
  • Forgetting how to talk 
  • Anxiously clinging to parents or caregivers
  • Replaying the traumatic event over and over

In older children and adolescents, symptoms can look similar to the signs of PTSD in adults. They may also exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Acting out in school
  • Being disruptive or disrespectful
  • Engaging in destructive or risky behaviors

Post-traumatic stress disorder can sometimes develop if you experience or witness an extremely distressing or traumatic event. It can also be caused by learning that it happened to someone you care about (e.g., racial trauma) or being exposed to details of an extremely distressful event (e.g., a therapist hearing about a traumatic event from a client).

It’s normal to feel fear during and after trauma. The fight-or-flight response is protective and helps you avoid danger when possible. However, being in a state of fear and distress long after the event may be a sign of PTSD.

Risk Factors

Researchers aren’t certain why some people develop PTSD after trauma while others do not. However, some factors may raise your risk of experiencing the condition. Possible risk factors for PTSD include:

  • Having a history of abuse, violence, war, natural disaster, or military combat
  • Experiencing a physical injury or seeing other people get hurt
  • Feeling horror or helplessness
  • Lacking social support

Additionally, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), people assigned female at birth, and those with a family history of mental health conditions also have a higher risk of developing PTSD.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, seeing a healthcare provider can help you get a proper diagnosis and the support you need to feel better.

Unlike physical health conditions that can be diagnosed with a blood or imaging test, there’s no one-size-fits-all test for PTSD. That said, your primary care provider will likely refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist with experience in diagnosing and treating PTSD to test you for the condition.

You can expect your mental healthcare provider to conduct a thorough psychiatric evaluation, ask you about your symptoms, and sometimes request insight from your loved ones about your behaviors and moods. A PTSD diagnosis requires experiencing symptoms for at least one month and meeting the following criteria:

  • One re-experiencing symptom
  • One avoidance symptom
  • Two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • Two cognition and mood symptoms

Receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder can feel overwhelming. The good news is that having a diagnosis can help you get the treatment you need to reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. In fact, several treatment options can help you live well with your condition.

Before treatment begins, your healthcare provider will ask questions to determine if you are currently in an unsafe situation that contributes to your symptoms. The first goal of treatment is to address any ongoing trauma and ensure your safety. The next goals of treatment will be to help you reduce symptoms, manage ongoing stress, and develop resilience. 

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy or talk therapy is the main treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. This involves meeting with a psychologist or therapist regularly to process your feelings around the traumatic event and learn coping skills. 

The types of trauma therapy that can help treat PTSD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Identifies and changes troubling thoughts, emotions, and behaviors 
  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): A family-focused therapy approach for children and their caregivers that includes trauma-sensitive interventions
  • Exposure therapy: Gradually exposes you to a traumatic event’s memories in a safe way 
  • Cognitive restructuring: Helps you make sense of a traumatic event by addressing guilt and shame
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Encourages you to process memories from trauma by focusing on a sound or motion
  • Group therapy: Connects you with survivors of similar traumatic events for social support

Most people with PTSD receive therapy anywhere from 6-16 weeks. Your exact treatment plan will depend on the severity of your symptoms. It’s worth noting that you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt in asking for mental health help. The more support you have early on, the better your long-term health outcomes. 

Medications

In addition to psychotherapy, your healthcare team may also recommend medications to address PTSD symptoms such as anxiety or depression. Research says that taking medications alongside therapy can be even more effective than taking either treatment option alone.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are antidepressant medications—both of which can help reduce PTSD symptoms. Antidepressant medications approved to treat PTSD include:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine)

It may not always be possible to prevent PTSD. The condition develops after you experience a traumatic or extremely distressing event—oftentimes which you may have no control over. However, resilience and mental toughness can often help you lower your risk of developing PTSD and experience fewer symptoms after a stressful event.

Common factors of resilience include:

  • Having a robust support system
  • Developing healthy stress management techniques
  • Feeling self-confidence and self-efficacy in the ability to overcome challenges

That said, if you experience a triggering or traumatic event, seeking early support from your loved ones, a support group, and your healthcare team can also help keep symptoms at bay and give you the support you need to process the trauma with care. 

PTSD is not the only mental health condition that can develop after a traumatic or stressful event. Conditions related to trauma and PTSD may include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): A mental health condition that causes feelings of intense worry and stress
  • Depression: A chronic mental health condition that causes persistent feelings of sadness
  • Substance use disorder (SUD): A mental health disorder that occurs when a person becomes dependent on a substance such as alcohol or drugs
  • Acute stress disorder (ASD): A short-term mental health condition that occurs three days to one month after a traumatic event
  • Adjustment disorder (AD): A temporary condition that happens in response to a life change or stressful event
  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED): A serious mental health condition that develops in children who have experienced neglect or abuse before age 2
  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD): A mental health condition that occurs in children who have experienced abuse or neglect and are unable to form close bonds with others

PTSD may affect every area of your life and learning how to live with PTSD can be challenging. There is hope, however, and it’s possible to live well after experiencing trauma.

Seeking treatment from a mental health provider as soon as you develop symptoms of PTSD or experience a traumatic event can be one of the most beneficial ways to keep PTSD symptoms at bay. Once you connect with a mental health provider, they can support you in processing your trauma.

Making necessary lifestyle changes to improve your overall well-being is just as important. This may include making time for family and friends, engaging in gentle daily movement, cooking meals, or setting up a relaxing evening routine. Soothing and relaxing activities can bolster your mental health and ensure your safety.

Symptoms of PTSD don’t disappear overnight. Your symptoms will improve gradually, and it’s best to be patient during your treatment journey. That said, aside from your healthcare team and loved ones, there are other sources you can use as support:

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