What Causes PTSD?

What Causes PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly abbreviated as PTSD, is a mental disorder that can develop after witnessing or living through a traumatic life event that causes one to feel hopeless and helpless. This includes natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist attacks, war/combat, abuse, and other acts of violence.

The symptoms of PTSD can negatively impact your life, making it hard to continue with work or school, maintain healthy relationships, and take care of simple day-to-day responsibilities. 

Without proper treatment, PTSD can lead to other chronic mental and behavioral health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations.

A Brief  History of PTSD

PTSD has been known by many names throughout history. From “shell shock” during World War I to “combat fatigue” during World War II, to “post-Vietnam syndrome” following the Vietnam War. At that time, the condition was associated with war veterans.

It was not until 1980 that PTSD became officially recognized as a distinct mental disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Since then, much has been learned about the causes, effects, and treatments for PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is characterized by four main types of symptoms as outlined below:

Re-experiencing Symptoms

A person with PTSD may re-experience the traumatic event through nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and vivid flashbacks as if the event was happening all over again.

Avoidance Symptoms

People with PTSD often tend to avoid anything that reminds them of the event. They may try to avoid people, places, things, and activities that trigger memories of the traumatic event.

Hyperarousal Symptoms

Hyperarousal is a state of being on constant alert. A person with PTSD may be easily startled, have difficulty sleeping, and feel tense or “on edge” all the time.

Negative Changes in Mood and Thinking

PTSD can also cause negative changes in mood and thinking. A person with PTSD may feel numb, disconnected from others, hopeless, and guilty. They may also have difficulty concentrating or remembering details of the event.

Other common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Excessive fear
  • Anxiety
  • Panic-attacks
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Angry outbursts
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior
  • Exaggerated startle response

Why Does PTSD Develop?

The exact reason why people develop PTSD remains a mystery. However, research points to a combination of physical, emotional, and psychological factors. Some possible explanations include:

Changes in the Brain

PTSD is associated with changes in the structure and function of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotion and stress. This may be one of the reasons why most PTSD patients have difficulty processing their emotions.

Changes in Stress Hormones

PTSD is also associated with changes in the levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline in the body. These hormones prepare the body for a ‘fight-or-flight” response.

However, in people with PTSD, the levels of these hormones remain elevated even after the threat has passed, which can lead to PTSD symptoms such as anxiety, hyperarousal, and emotional numbness.

Survival Mechanism

Some experts believe that PTSD may also be a result of the body’s natural survival mechanism. It is thought that the symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts and flashbacks, may be the body’s way of trying to make sense of the trauma and prepare itself for similar scenarios in the future.

Who is at Risk of Developing PTSD?

Anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event is at risk of developing PTSD. But this does not necessarily mean that everyone who has experienced a traumatic event will go on to develop the disorder. However, certain factors can significantly increase the chances of developing the condition. They include:

  • Experiencing multiple traumas
  • Lack of social support after the trauma
  • Having pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
  • Having a history of childhood trauma or abuse
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Poor stress coping mechanisms

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