Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can occur in some people after they experience or witness a traumatic event, series of events, or circumstances.

Symptoms of PTSD may affect a person’s mental, physical, spiritual, and social well-being. People with PTSD often experience intrusive thoughts and feelings that last long after the event has passed.

This article explores common causes of PTSD. It also discusses PTSD in veterans and risk factors. Finally, it goes over the symptoms and treatments for PTSD.

Content warning

This feature mentions experiences of trauma and sexual abuse. Please read at your own discretion.

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According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), around 1 in 3 people develop PTSD after experiencing severe trauma. It is not fully understood why some people develop the condition and others do not.

What is considered traumatic can vary from person to person. Many different circumstances can be harmful or life threatening, which someone may find traumatic and may lead to PTSD.

Some common events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • sexual or physical assault
  • serious accidents
  • domestic or childhood abuse
  • serious health issues, including being admitted to intensive care
  • childbirth experiences
  • the death of a loved one
  • exposure to traumatic events at work, including remote exposure
  • torture
  • war and conflict
  • natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, or pandemics
  • working as a member of the emergency services or armed forces

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 7% of veterans experience PTSD at some point in their lives compared with 6% of the general population.

According to the VA, the number of veterans who experience PTSD varies by the era of service:

Service eraPTSD at some point in lifePTSD in past year
Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF)29%15%
Persian Gulf War (Desert Storm)21%14%
Vietnam War10%5%
World War II and Korean War3%2%

Deployment increases the risk of a veteran developing PTSD. Service members who have been deployed are three times more likely to develop PTSD than their counterparts who do not deploy, reports the VA.

Other factors during a combat situation can contribute to the development of PTSD, including:

  • military occupation or specialty
  • politics around the war
  • location of the war
  • type of enemy faced

Another cause of PTSD among veterans is military sexual trauma. This includes sexual assault or harassment that occurs during the time of military service.

The VA offers help and support for veterans who are experiencing PTSD.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event develops PTSD. Many factors play a role in the development of the condition. Some of these factors occur before the traumatic event. Others occur during and after.

Risk factors for PTSD include:

  • exposure to previous traumatic events, especially during childhood
  • getting hurt or seeing someone else hurt or killed
  • feeling horror, extreme fear, or helplessness
  • having little or no support after a traumatic event
  • dealing with stressors after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, injury or pain, or loss of a home or job
  • having a family or personal history of mental illness or substance use

Resilience factors that may help reduce the risk of developing PTSD include:

  • learning to feel all right about one’s actions in response to a traumatic event
  • seeking and receiving support following a traumatic event
  • being prepared and able to respond to upsetting or traumatic events when they occur, despite feeling fear
  • having coping strategies to get through traumatic events

Symptoms of PTSD vary from person to person. However, there are typically four types of symptoms.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reexperiencing symptoms: This is when something reminds the person of the event and they feel the fear again. These symptoms may include:
    • flashbacks
    • frightening thoughts
    • nightmares
  • Avoidance symptoms: This is when a person tries to avoid situations or people that may activate PTSD. Examples include:
    • staying away from places, objects, or events that remind them of the event
    • avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the event
  • Arousal and reactive symptoms: These may cause someone to be on the lookout for danger or feel jittery. These symptoms may include:
    • feeling tense or on edge
    • being easily startled
    • having sleep issues
    • having angry outbursts
  • Cognitive and mood symptoms: These include negative changes to a person’s feelings and beliefs. Examples include:
    • negative thoughts about oneself or the world
    • difficulty remembering important things about the event
    • feeling guilt and blame
    • difficulty concentrating
    • losing interest in activities

Not everyone with PTSD needs treatment. For some people, the condition fades on its own over time or with support from those around them.

Treatment typically involves psychotherapy. One main type of psychotherapy mental health professionals use to treat PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Two common types of CBT for PTSD include cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy.

Medication may also help people manage PTSD symptoms. Antidepressants may help with some core symptoms of PTSD. Other medications may help reduce anxiety and agitation or treat sleep issues and nightmares.

PTSD often occurs as a result of traumatic experiences, events, or circumstances. However, not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD.

PTSD is more common in veterans than in the general population. Common causes of PTSD include sexual assault or harassment, abuse, and combat.

Treatment of PTSD includes psychotherapy and medication. However, not everyone with PTSD requires treatment.

If a person feels they may be experiencing PTSD, they can contact a mental health professional for support and next steps.