Symptoms, Signs & Effects of PTSD

When a person experiences, witnesses, or learns about a traumatic event and suffers from extreme emotional distress as a result, it can be indicative of posttraumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. While it is normal to experience sadness or fear following a trauma, the level of impairment in functioning is significant in those that suffer from PTSD. Flashbacks, intrusive memories, and nightmares often occur and can prevent a person from completing daily tasks or getting a proper night’s sleep. Moreover, a person suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder may remain in a state of heightened alertness, waiting for impending danger that is not likely to occur.

A disorder that does not discriminate based on age, PTSD symptoms could manifest following abuse, natural or manmade disasters, accidents, deployment to a war-torn country, or the sudden death of a loved one. Occurring immediately after the event, or even long after the event has taken place, the symptoms can be incapacitating. However, with treatment, those suffering from PTSD have been able to resume normal functioning without disruption.

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A disorder affecting 10% of women and 5% of men, posttraumatic stress disorder affects an estimated 5.2 million adults. Additionally, research has found that an estimated 4% of children between the ages of 13 and 17 years old will meet criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. Moreover, similar studies have concluded that 7% to 8% of the overall population will develop posttraumatic stress disorder at some point during life.

Causes and Risk Factors for PTSD

There are a number of factors that could render a person susceptible to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder. While a trauma can stir up a number of emotions in a person, it is not guaranteed that an individual will show signs and symptoms of PTSD. Below are agreed upon causes and risks for the development of posttraumatic stress disorder after a person experiences, witnesses, or learns about a trauma:

Genetic: People with a family history of mental illness are at an increased risk for developing PTSD. Especially for those with a first-degree family member, specifically with an anxiety disorder, there is an even greater chance of showing symptoms of PTSD following a traumatic event or experience.

Physical: Research has found that those with posttraumatic stress disorder have lower levels of dopamine and serotonin in their brains. These decreased levels are similar to the lower levels of the same neurotransmitters in people with anxiety disorders and could explain why those with PTSD respond to stress and trauma in the manner in which they do. Lastly, neuroimaging has provided evidence to indicate that those with PTSD have structural differences in their brains as opposed to people who do not suffer from the disorder.

Environmental: Repeated exposure to violence or being in a highly stressful environment are known to contribute to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder. Additionally, those with a history of abuse or other traumas are more susceptible to developing PTSD symptoms later in life.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Lack of coping skills
  • Lack of support system
  • Preexisting mental health disorder
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of abuse or other traumas

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

The signs and symptoms of PTSD can vary person to person. Depending on the trauma itself, the individual’s age, and the presence of a support system for the individual suffering, signs of posttraumatic stress disorder can manifest in the following ways:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Flashbacks vivid enough to make a person feel as though the trauma is reoccurring
  • Nightmares about the trauma
  • Physiological symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate, or labored breathing
  • Intrusive memories about the trauma

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Avoiding people, places, or situations that bring about reminders of the trauma
  • Feelings of hopelessness regarding the future
  • Memory impairment pertaining to the trauma
  • Detached feeling from the outside world
  • Decreased interest in previously enjoyed pleasurable experiences or things

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Outbursts of anger
  • Excessive irritability
  • Sleep impairment
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Feeling jumpy or on edge
  • Fearful of impending danger
  • Exaggerated startle response
  • Increased agitation
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of PTSD

The long-term effects of untreated posttraumatic stress disorder can wreak havoc on a person’s life. Because the symptoms cause a great deal of distress, a person is at risk of experiencing:

  • Substance use leading to addiction or dependence
  • Decrease in occupational or academic functioning
  • Unemployment
  • Decrease in quantity and quality of interpersonal relationships
  • Demise of marriage or partnership
  • Disordered eating
  • Chronic pain
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Similar to other mental illnesses, posttraumatic stress disorder can exist alongside other mental health conditions. Occurring in 80% of people who have a PTSD diagnosis, some other common co-occurring disorders are:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Non-suicidal self-injury
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Suicidal ideation
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