What Causes PTSD?
Just like many other mental health conditions, there is no single reason explaining why some people will develop PTSD following a trauma, while others won’t. We do know that temperamental, environmental, genetic and cultural risk factors can increase the chance of developing PTSD.
Temperamental Risk Factors
Some risk factors for PTSD may be apparent early in childhood. Identified risk factors for PTSD include some the following traits:
- Emotional challenges or vulnerabilities in early childhood
- Previous mental health problems, including depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- A tendency to feel more depressed or anxious when compared to others
Environmental Risk Factors
Researchers have found that people who experience more severe or more extreme traumas (mass shootings, combat) are more likely to develop PTSD. Also, challenges or overwhelming experiences in childhood may leave some people more vulnerable to developing PTSD compared to others. Environmental factors that can increase the risk of PTSD include:
- Lower socioeconomic status (SES)
- Lower education
- Being exposed to traumas during childhood
- Experiencing childhood adverse events, including emotional, physical or sexual abuse
- Family dysfunction
- Experiencing discrimination or racism
- Losing a parent or guardian due to separation or death
Genetic Risk Factors
Having a family history of mental health problems can increase one’s risk for PTSD. This is similar to having an increased risk for depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions if your close family member also has the illness.
Cultural Risk Factors
Researchers have noticed that different cultures experience different symptoms of PTSD. Some cultural groups may be more likely to avoid triggers that remind them of their trauma. Other cultures may experience more physical or emotional symptoms, like dizziness or anger.
Sex and Gender Differences
According to the DSM V-TR, women are more likely to experience PTSD than men. One explanation for this is that women are more likely to be sexually abused or assaulted compared to men, which could increase their risk for experiencing a trauma. Another explanation is that women and men process traumas differently, both cognitively and emotionally. Reproductive hormones may also play a role in gender differences following trauma.
Some people develop long-lasting PTSD symptoms after experiencing a trauma. PTSD symptoms can be grouped into several categories. These categories include:
- Intrusive thoughts; reliving or re-experiencing the trauma
- Avoidant behaviors
- Changes in one’s thoughts or feelings
- Feeling hyper aroused or easily startled
- Experiencing high levels of distress or inability to function
Reliving or Re-experiencing the Trauma
Often, people with PTSD do not want to think about their past trauma(s), yet intrusive and upsetting memories of the trauma can continue to appear, sometimes at random. Intrusive symptoms include involuntary thoughts, nightmares or memories of the trauma. At its most extreme, intrusive flashbacks can make a person feel as though the traumatic event is re-occurring all again. During a flashback, a person may completely lose awareness of the present moment and their surroundings. “Triggers,” internal or external reminders of a trauma, are another common PTSD symptom.
People struggling with PTSD commonly exhibit avoidance behaviors, avoiding people, places, topics, movies, situations, or objects that remind them of their trauma. As an example, many people who have been in traumatic combat situations avoid situations where gunshots, fireworks, or other loud noises may be present. Avoidant behaviors can also be experienced internally. People with PTSD may work hard to avoid thinking about or remembering the trauma, because it is so upsetting.
Negative Mood Changes
People with PTSD often experience changes in how they experience the world after a trauma. They also experience changes to their thoughts, feelings, or moods, including:
- Trouble remembering certain details related to the trauma
- Frequent critical thoughts about themselves: “I am ruined.” “No one will love me.” “The world is not safe.”
- Believing that they did something bad to bring on the trauma
- Persistent feelings of sadness, self-blame, shame or guilt
- Inability to participate in life as they did before the trauma
- Feeling detached from others around them
- Inability to feel happiness or love for others
When a person develops PTSD following a trauma, they may become more emotionally reactive, hostile, or irritable. They may become easily startled or frightened by surprises or sudden, loud noises. Other symptoms related to hyperarousal include:
- Being verbally or physically aggressive
- Acting reckless or self-destructive
- Trouble concentrating
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Becoming angry, seemingly without reason
Some people with PTSD experience symptoms of dissociation, depersonalization or derealization. When this occurs, it may seem as though they are momentarily in a dream. They may feel that they are temporarily detached from their body. Time may move more slowly or seem distorted. People in their vision field may seem distant or far away. This dissociative state often lasts just a few seconds.
PTSD & Suicidal Thoughts
PTSD can increase the risk of having suicidal thoughts or completing suicide. If you, or someone you care about, is having serious thoughts of ending their life, please know that help is available. Call 988 to talk to someone now at the U.S. Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or go to your nearest emergency room.
Warning Signs of PTSD
There are many different symptoms associated with PTSD. Warning signs of PTSD can vary from person to person, and may include:
- Re-experiencing the trauma in nightmare or flashbacks
- Feeling easily hyper aroused, jittery, “on edge,” startled or jumpy
- Reeling disconnected from reality for brief periods of time
- Having involuntary, intrusive, distressing memories of the trauma
- Trying to avoid thoughts, memories or feelings related to the trauma
- Avoiding people, places, or objects, including movies, that remind them of the trauma
- Trouble remembering certain details of the trauma
- Feeling permanently changed, or even ruined, following the trauma
- Feelings of depression, irritability, anger, guilt, or shame
- Feeling less interest or enjoyment in daily activities
- Feeling detached from people; trouble connecting with others
- Trouble feeling happiness or joy
- Taking risks or acting in self-destructive ways
- Being very concerned that harm can happen at any time; going to great lengths to stay “safe”
- Trouble concentrating or sleeping
Health Risks of PTSD
PTSD is highly associated with trouble at work, at school, and in one’s personal relationships. Researchers have found that those with PTSD face:
- A reduced quality of life
- An increased risk for physical health problems
- More absences at work
- Lower income
- Less career success
- Lower education levels
- Increased risk for other mental health conditions
PTSD can be debilitating. But you can recover from PTSD and learn how to manage life after trauma. Effective PTSD treatment exists, including medications and therapies.
Reclaim your life after trauma by working with our experienced, compassionate mental health professionals. PTSD treatment is very effective and could help you recover.
Therapy for PTSD
Trauma-focused therapies are the most effective treatments for PTSD. And, the sooner you start therapy for PTSD, the easier it might be to recover. What would recovery from PTSD look like for you?
- Would you like to reduce or eliminate nightmares, flashbacks, triggers, and other distressing symptoms related to the trauma?
- Would you like to feel more connected to your partner, friends or co-workers?
- Would you like to feel happier, less irritable or less worried all the time?
Therapy for PTSD can help you learn new coping skills to help you reduce the anger, irritability, shame, guilt and anxiety that often accompany PTSD. With help from your therapist, you can increase an inner sense of well-being and relaxation. You can learn how to let go of physical tension and feel safe in the world again. Here at Pathlight, our compassionate therapists offer several therapies known to help people recover from PTSD, including Cognitive Processing Therapy.
Yes, You Can Recover from PTSD
The trauma you experienced does not have to take over your life forever. If you are ready to make a change, we can help. At Pathlight Behavioral Health Centers, our mental health clinicians use a variety of strategies to help you find relief from trauma so you can return to life as your full self. We are proud to offer effective, evidence-based therapies and medications to help you develop and maintain a healthy and more balanced life. When you choose Pathlight as a treatment center for PTSD, our primary treatment goals will be to:
- Help you understand what PTSD is and why it occurs
- Teach you about the causes and triggers of PTSD
- Guide you to a place where you can live a life where your past trauma is no longer in charge of your behavior
- Introduce you to skills to regulate your thoughts, emotions, and physical, as well as behavioral reactions
- Support you as you move towards your life’s values and goals
- Involve members of your support system so they better understand what you are going through and how to help
Get more information about our trauma treatment program and let us know how we can help.
PTSD Facts & Statistics
In the U.S., 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one trauma in their lifetime.
Approximately 6% of the U.S. population will go on to experience PTSD following a trauma.
Women are about twice as likely to develop PTSD compared to men, with about 8% of women and 4% of men in the U.S. experiencing PTSD.
In people under 18 who have experienced a trauma, up to 15% of girls and up to 6% of boys will develop PTSD.
The fear that is experienced during a traumatic event causes physical changes known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This can help to increase alertness, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
People who lack a strong social support system are more likely to develop PTSD.
An estimated 12 million people in the U.S. are currently living with PTSD.
1 in 3 people with PTSD have severe symptoms.
PTSD is Linked to Sexual Assault
At least 1 in 10 women, and 1 in 10 men, will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, increasing their risk of PTSD.[8,9]
At least 1 in 4 females will be sexually abused as children, increasing their risk of PTSD.
Almost all women (94%) who have been sexually assaulted experience symptoms of PTSD for several weeks following the crime. After 9 months, 30% of women continue to report PTSD symptoms.
Males who have been sexually assaulted are more likely to have PTSD than males who have not been sexually assaulted.
4 out of 5 women who are sexually assaulted will know the person who assaults them.
Males are more likely than females to be sexually abused by strangers and people in authority positions (schools, churches, sports).
Most males who commit sexual assault or abuse crimes against other males identify as heterosexual.
Men commit nearly 90% of all sexual assault and sexual abuse crimes.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder FAQs
Can PTSD be effectively treated?
Yes, PTSD can be effectively treated with talk therapy and medications. Treatment can help you feel safe in the world again. PTSD treatment offers a great deal of relief, reducing or eliminating the many distressing symptoms of PTSD, including:
- Flashbacks, nightmares and unwanted memories
- Negative thoughts and feelings
How long does PTSD last?
In order to be diagnosed with PTSD, the distressing symptoms following a trauma must last for at least one month. For some people, PTSD symptoms can last months, years, decades or even a lifetime. Because PTSD symptoms are so persistent, it is important to seek help right away.
What are the signs of PTSD?
The 4 main signs of PTSD include:
- Reliving or re-experiencing the trauma (nightmares and flashbacks)
- Avoiding any reminders of the trauma
- Experiencing negative thoughts or feelings that didn’t exist before the trauma
- Hyperarousal (easily startled, jittery, tense, keyed up or on edge)
How common is PTSD?
PTSD rates for the U.S. include:
- 6% of all adults develop PTSD
- 4% of men develop PTSD
- 8% of women develop PTSD
- 12 million adults currently have PTSD
- Up to 15% of girls with a trauma history develop PTSD
- Up to 6% of boys with a trauma history develop PTSD
Can you be traumatized by being yelled at?
Being yelled at frequently is a form of emotional abuse. Survivors of child abuse experience more learning problems, mental and physical health problems and problems with the law. Being emotionally abused as an adult increases physical and mental health problems and trouble at work or in relationships.[15,16]
How do you know if you have PTSD?
If you’ve been through a trauma, you could have PTSD if you’ve been experiencing these symptoms for a month or more:
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Being startled easily
- Feeling numb or detached from your surroundings
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Irritability or anger
- Avoiding triggers reminding you of the trauma
What are PTSD triggers?
A PTSD trigger is a person, place, sound, object, or smell that reminds you of your trauma. People with PTSD try to avoid triggers because they do not want to be reminded of the trauma. They may become concerned about impending dangers, often seeming hypervigilant or “on guard.”
What are PTSD flashbacks?
A PTSD flashback feels as though the trauma is occurring again in the present moment. Usually lasting just a few seconds, a person may briefly experience people, places or objects from the traumatic event. Flashbacks are often upsetting and can reoccur, but you can learn how to manage them.
Source for Diagnostic Criteria:
American Psychiatric Association. (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed., text rev.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Choosing a Treatment. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Why Get Treatment? Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Signs of Good PTSD Care. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: How Common is PTSD in Adults? Accessed December 28, 2022.
 Anxiety & Depression Association of America: Understanding PTSD. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 National Library of Medicine: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 National Alliance on Mental Illness. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Sexual Assault: Females. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Sexual Assault: Males. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: PTSD Treatment Basics. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: PTSD: National Center for PTSD: PTSD Basics. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: How Common is PTSD in Women? Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: How Common is PTSD in Children and Teens? Accessed December 28, 2022.
 Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration: Understanding Child Trauma. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Intimate Partner Violence. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Do I Have PTSD? Accessed December 28, 2022.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD: Trauma Reminders: Triggers. Accessed December 28, 2022.
 Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: Flashbacks. Accessed December 28, 2022.