Causes of post-traumatic stress disorder
Traumatic events threaten the life and safety of ourselves or others. They can involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual abuse. Experiencing or hearing about a traumatic event or multiple traumatic events can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experts are still learning more about why some of us develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anyone can develop PTSD after a traumatic event. Factors that may contribute to developing PTSD, include:
- past life experiences such as childhood trauma or sexual abuse
- experiencing trauma over a long period of time
- having a job that exposes you to repeated trauma such as police, ambulance officer, firefighter or military
- genetic factors (family history of mental health issues)
- previous mental health issues like anxiety and depression
- brain chemistry
- your body’s stress response
- your support network (colleagues, family and friends and access to professional help).
Traumatic stress reactions have developed in humans over time, helping us survive danger and helping us come to terms with the trauma afterwards.
We have an immediate stress response to protect ourselves from danger, and later we may try to make sense of a distressing or dangerous event by replaying it in our mind. This is a very normal way of processing things that distress us.
Once the stressor has passed it can sometimes be hard to let go of these thoughts or our alertness to danger. That’s when it can start to interfere with our life and make it difficult to go about our everyday activities.
Being distressed and upset is a very normal reaction to being in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. In fact, most people will have post-traumatic feelings in the first few weeks after a terrible event.
When we’re traumatised, we may:
- be very emotional and cry a lot
- feel anxious
- think a lot about what happened
- have trouble sleeping
- not feel like eating much
- feel scared, guilty or angry.
Mostly, these feelings of distress will gradually calm down in the weeks after the trauma.
In a small proportion of us, however, these disturbing memories and feelings stay. They can start to affect how we go about our everyday activities. They may develop into acute stress disorder (ASD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic events can trigger depression or an anxiety disorder, and not necessarily PTSD. PTSD is a complex condition and there are a number of factors that ultimately affect whether someone will develop PTSD.
While we don’t know for sure, evidence suggests that many people who have been through a traumatic event have post-traumatic stress reactions in the first few weeks after the event but for most, these feelings fade in time.
The majority of people who are exposed to a traumatic event do not develop PTSD.
PTSD after September 11
Studies looking at PTSD rates in Manhattan residents after the September 11 attacks found that the prevalence of 'probable PTSD' was around 7.5%. Six months later, the rate had dropped to 0.6%, which is closer to the normal rate in general society.
We can experience more than one mental health issue at the same time. This is called a ‘co-condition’ or ‘comorbidity’. For example, someone with PTSD may have generalised anxiety disorder or depression at the same time.
Sometimes people try to ease the pain of PTSD by using drugs and alcohol. Alcohol and drug abuse is a common co-morbidity with PTSD and can hinder recovery.
There are also strong links between PTSD and obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
It’s important to seek help from your GP so you can get a thorough health check and the best advice.
There are things you can do that may help you cope with a traumatic event including:
- seeking social support
- talking to family and friends or someone else who is good at listening and offering support
- talking to your community (church members, colleagues, mental health professionals)
- talking about it early (Getting timely support might be a factor in preventing your normal stress reactions from developing into PTSD.)
- staying away from drugs and alcohol as a way of coping.
It’s important to know that PTSD is not a sign of personal weakness. Each of us is unique and will respond differently when exposed to traumatic events.
The most important thing is to get help for your PTSD. There are effective treatments and people who can help, so you don’t have to keep feeling like this.
Start by talking to your GP.
Find out more about getting help for PTSD.