Signs, Effects & Symptoms of PTSD

Understanding PTSD

Understanding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Following a traumatic ordeal, most people feel frightened, anxious, sad, and disconnected. For some people, however, these feelings don’t disappear within a few days or months. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very serious anxiety disorder that some people develop after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event or a series of very scary and traumatic events. Fear is a natural reaction to danger; fear triggers the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This type of fight or flight response is a healthy emotional and physical reaction experienced to protect a person from experiencing harm. However, for people who have PTSD, this reaction is damaged or changed; these people may feel frightened or stressed even when they are no longer in danger.

While once considered an affliction of war veterans, PTSD affects people at any age—but not everyone who lives through an overwhelming, traumatic event goes on to develop PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder develops very differently in each person who experiences it. Some may notice symptoms in the days and weeks following the event while others do not develop symptoms for weeks, months, and even years following the event. While any situation that causes people to feel helpless or as if they’re in danger can lead to PTSD, the most common traumatic events include:

  • War
  • Natural disasters
  • Car accidents
  • Plane crashes
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Sudden, unexpected death of a loved one
  • Rape/sexual assault
  • Kidnapping
  • Physical assault
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Child neglect


Statistics for PTSD

Each year, about 5.2 million adults are struggling with PTSD; only a fraction of those who have experienced a trauma. PTSD is more common in women; approximately 10% of women develop post-traumatic stress disorder at some time in their lives compared to 5% of men. About 7% to 8% of the population of the United States will develop PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

Causes & Risk Factors

Causes & risk factors for PTSD

It’s thought that the development of post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by a variety of genetic, environmental, physical factors working with risk factors. These factors can cause PTSD to develop in some individuals and not others. Resilience factors may reduce the risks for people to develop PTSD after exposure to trauma. Causes, risk, and resilience factors for PTSD include:

Genetic: People who have first-degree relatives who have anxiety disorders or other types of mental illness are at a greater risk for developing PTSD after exposure to a particularly traumatic event than others.

Physical: In neuroimaging studies of the brains of people who have PTSD, it’s been noted that there are marked differences in the structure of certain brain structures. Additionally, the neurotransmitter levels of dopamine and serotonin may be lower than in those who do not have an anxiety disorder.

Environmental: People who live in a high-stress situation, such as in an impoverished area where violence is a part of daily life, may be at increased risk for developing PTSD after a traumatic event.

Risk Factors:

  • Living through dangerous events and traumas
  • Being female
  • Lower education
  • Childhood trauma – neglect or abuse
  • History of mental illness
  • History of substance use or abuse
  • Being hurt
  • Seeing people hurt or killed
  • Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear
  • Having little-to-no social support after the event
  • Dealing with extra stressors following the event such as pain, injury, loss of home, loss of employment, or loss of a loved one.

Resilience factors may reduce the risk for developing PTSD and include:

  • Seeking out the support of loved ones and friends following the event
  • Finding and attending a support group after the event
  • Finding a therapist following the event to allow for processing of emotions
  • Having a coping strategy; a way to get through the event and learning from it
  • Ability to act and respond effectively despite feelings of fear


Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can develop suddenly or may begin gradually and worsen over time. Symptom presentation varies tremendously among sufferers based upon co-occurring disorders, individual makeup, and symptom severity and may include:

Re-Experiencing Symptoms:

  • Flashbacks – living through the trauma over and over, complete with physical symptoms such as pounding heart and sweating
  • Nightmares and bad dreams of generally frightening things or of the traumatic event
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Disruptions in everyday routine
  • Intense physical reactions to triggers
  • Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
  • Severe distress when reminded of the trauma
  • Triggered by words, objects, or situations that remind the person of the event

Avoidance Symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Feeling detached from others
  • Sense of a limited future; feeling as though a person’s life is going to be short
  • Loss of interest in life
  • Avoiding certain places, events, or objects that remind a person of the trauma
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Loss of interest in previously-enjoyable activities
  • Challenges recalling important parts of the traumatic event

Hyperarousal Symptoms:

  • Symptoms usually constant and not triggered by a reminder of the trauma
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Easily startled
  • Feeling constantly tense or on-edge
  • Insomnia or challenges staying asleep
  • Difficulties sleeping, eating, and concentrating

Other Symptoms of PTSD:

  • Anger and irritability
  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance or alcohol abuse
  • Feelings of betrayal and distrust
  • Feeling alienated from others
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Suicidal thoughts


Effects of PTSD

Left untreated, PTSD rarely goes away on its own. With proper therapies, treatments, and lifestyle changes, people who are struggling with PTSD are able to go on to lead happy, productive lives. Long-term, chronic problems that may develop as a result of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Loss of occupational or scholastic functioning
  • Decreased ability to have successful interpersonal relationships
  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Increased absenteeism from work
  • Lower income
  • Worsening physical health problems
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Mood swings
  • Domestic and child abuse
  • Violence
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

PTSD & co-occurring disorders

Post-traumatic stress disorder often presents alongside other types of mental health disorders; 80% of people who have PTSD present with another mental disorder. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders may include:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Conduct disorder (children and teens)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (children and teens)
  • Substance abuse
  • Depressive disorders
  • Other anxiety disorders
  • Alcoholism

I didn't think I could get past my PTSD. I thought I had tried everything. Luckily, I found Highland Ridge, and now I'm doing so much better.

– John I.