Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to become fearful, overwhelmed and generally anxious after a traumatic experience. This condition can lead to difficulty in sustaining relationships and employment. PTSD may even cause physical brain changes such as a smaller hippocampus.
Although people tend to associate causes of PTSD with war, this disorder can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or social status.
Understanding PTSD Triggers
What causes PTSD? Post-traumatic stress syndrome is caused by a traumatic experience. Any traumatic incident that leads to PTSD is called a trigger event. Here are some experiences that can trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome:
- Abuse (physical, mental or emotional)
- Car, plane or train crashes
- Civil conflict
- Combat experience
- Job loss
- Life-threatening medical diagnosis
- Natural disasters
- Serious physical injury
- Terrorist attack
The word traumatic is highly subjectiveâ€”what may be traumatic for one person may not affect another in the same way.
A variety of experiences can be categorized as highly stressful or intensely tragic. For PTSD to develop, the person having the experience must perceive that he or someone else is in danger of death or severe injury, or be severely emotionally compromised. For example, a job loss might trigger PTSD if the individual feels she is in danger of no longer being able to provide food and shelter for herself and her family.
PTSD Risk Factors
Because everyone reacts differently to trauma, medical experts have a hard time predicting who will and who won’t develop PTSD. However, it appears that repeated exposure to trauma increases the risk of developing PTSD, leaving many military members, first responders and victims of long-term abuse particularly vulnerable to developing this condition. Other risk factors for PTSD include:
- Age (children and adolescents are at higher risk)
- Gender (females are at greater risk than males)
- Having a learning disability
- Violence in the home.
In the days following a traumatic event, some medications may reduce the risk of PTSD, including certain antidepressants and drugs that decrease the heart rate.
Stress, Anxiety and PTSD
Although PTSD is an anxiety disorder, the relationship between stress, anxiety and PTSD is complicated. Stress and anxiety are PTSD symptoms, as well as primary causes of PTSD, making it difficult to learn to recover from the condition. A stressful event triggers PTSD, leading to more stress, which triggers more symptoms of PTSD and further stress.
Because of this snowball effect, consulting a doctor at the first sign of PTSD symptoms may make the condition more easily manageable.
Dryden-Edwards, R. (2010). Posttraumatic stress disorder PDSD. Retrieved June 25, 2010, from: http://www.medicinenet.com/posttraumatic_stress_disorder/article.htm.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2009). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved July 6, 2010, from: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-easy-to-read/index.shtml#pub4.