If you’ve ever had flashbacks, nightmares, or emotional distress after a traumatic experience, you may have gone through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trauma is a common part of life for many people. In fact, most people go through trauma at some point in their lifetime, including car accidents, the loss of a loved one, or abuse.
However, some people experience a mental health issue that causes them to relive the trauma in a way that causes depression, anxiety, and other ongoing adverse symptoms. Post-traumatic stress involves fight-or-flight reactions to the memory of a traumatic event or triggers that cause intrusive thoughts or painful memories of an event. As a result, people with PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even if they’re not in danger.
Learn more about post-traumatic stress, who it affects, and how it can be treated.
How Common Is PTSD?
Trauma is a fact of life for many people. An estimated 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women go through a traumatic event at some point in their lives. However, few people actually experience post-traumatic stress as a result of trauma.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, around 7 to 8 percent of people in the U.S. will have PTSD at some point. In a given year, around 8 million adults have the disorder. It’s more frequent among people with high-stress jobs or people who are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events like military service members and first responders. However, one of the most common causes of PTSD is experiencing a car accident.
Signs Of PTSD
Avoidance is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder that is easy to overlook. Because most people try to prevent pain and discomfort, avoiding painful memories or places associated with those memories may be difficult to notice. However, PTSD often causes you to have an aversion to confronting thoughts associated with a painful memory.
For instance, you may not like driving down a street where you got into a serious car accident. In some cases, it can be severe enough that you isolate yourself from everyday experiences that might bring up those memories. For instance, instead of just avoiding that street, you may avoid getting into a car altogether.
Another common symptom is called re-experiencing. This happens when you have thoughts that force you to relive a traumatic event. Re-experiencing symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, and frightening thoughts. Re-experiencing may be triggered by sights, sounds, or smells that cause you to remember or think about the trauma.
Arousal and reactivity are other marks of PTSD. This can include being easily startled, feeling tense, having insomnia or sleep disturbances, and angry outbursts. Arousal can cause a constant state of alarm or stress rather than quick and sudden symptoms like a flashback.
PTSD can also cause cognitive and mood symptoms like memory issues, low self-esteem, guilt, depression, anxiety, and the loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed.
Other symptoms can include:
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure)
- Memory issues
- A negative outlook about the world
- Detachment from family and friends
- Being easily startled
- Difficulty concentrating
Young children often show different signs of PTSD. They may have nightmares or night terrors that can involve elements of a traumatic event, but they might also seem unrelated. Children may also reenact aspects of a traumatic event as they play.
Who Can Develop PTSD?
Anyone can experience PTSD after a traumatic event. It’s also not relegated to a specific race, sex, class, or any other demographic. However, PTSD is more commonly reported in women than men, with 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men experiencing it at some point in their lives.
However, it may be that women report PTSD and seek treatment at higher rates than men, so it may not reflect a higher instance of the disorder in women. Men and women may also experience different types of trauma and exhibit symptoms differently, with men gravitating toward irritability or anger.
The highest rates of PTSD are reported among 45- to 59-year-olds, but the lowest rates were reported among people over age 60. People in their 20s and 30s also reported significant rates of PTSD.
You are more likely to experience PTSD if you have certain risk factors for the disorder. One of the most common risk factors is prolonged periods of stress, as seen in first responders like police and paramedics. Military service members also go through long periods of stress, especially those who see combat situations. Childhood trauma, such as abuse, also increases your risk of developing PTSD.
Other risk factors include:
- Other mental health issues
- Having a family member with the disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Lacking a support system
What Causes PTSD?
Mental health disorders like PTSD are complex, so it’s difficult to pinpoint their exact cause. Why do some people experience trauma and not develop a disorder while some people do? Like other mental health disorders, it’s likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Genetic factors can include mental health risks like a family history of issues like anxiety or depressive disorders. If a parent, sibling, or child has the disorder, you’re much more likely to be susceptible to it.
If you are vulnerable to PTSD, environmental factors like high-stress situations or traumatic events may trigger the disorder. Trauma that leads to PTSD can include personal experiences with abuse, accidents, injuries, or combat exposure. However, it can also occur after witnessing a traumatic event. For instance, bystanders of a violent car accident might experience PTSD even though they weren’t in the crash.
Why Seek Help?
If you or someone you know might be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress or other mental health issues, there may be treatment options available. Mental health problems can be chronic, and if they’re left untreated, they could get worse.
Post-traumatic stress can lead to some serious consequences like depression and anxiety disorders, increased risk of suicide, substance use problems, eating disorders, and physical health issues related to chronic stress and sleep issues. However, PTSD is treatable with the right help.
Take your first steps toward better mental health today by learning more about treatment options for PTSD.