Causes of PTSD & C-PTSD in children and young adults
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It’s estimated that around 20% of people who experience a trauma go on to develop PTSD (so around 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives).
Studies show a prevalence of PTSD in children ranging from around 6-10%, with the most commonly reported traumatic experiences being ‘witnessing injury to or death of others, hearing news of other’s sudden death or accident, and personally experiencing a sudden injury or accident’.
The defining characteristic of a traumatic event is its capacity to cause fear, helplessness, or horror as a response to the threat of injury or death, and therefore can affect anyone. Some examples of traumatic events include (please note this list is NOT exhaustive):
- Road traffic incidents
- Being told you have a life-threatening illness
- Any form of abuse, including Childhood Abuse
- Natural disasters such as flooding or an earthquake
- Being kidnapped or held hostage
- Being bullied
- Refugee and asylum seekers
What causes PTSD?
PTSD is essentially a memory filing error caused by a traumatic event. When you experience something really traumatic your body suspends ‘normal operations’ and so temporarily shuts down some bodily functions such as digestion, skin repair and crucially, memory processing.
During trauma, your brain thinks ‘processing and understanding what is going on right now is not important! Getting your legs ready to run, your heart rate up, and your arms ready to fight this danger is what’s important right now, I’ll get back to the processing later.’
As such, until the danger passes, the mind does not produce a memory for this traumatic event in the normal way. So, when your brain eventually does go back to try to process the trauma, and the mind presents the situation as a memory for filing, if finds it ‘does not exist’ in your memory yet, so it sees it as a situation in the current timeline, and so it can be very distressing.
The distress comes from the fact that the brain is unable to recognise this as a ‘memory’, because it hasn’t been processed as one. As such, the facts of what happened, the emotions associated with the trauma and the sensations touch, taste, sound, vision, movement, and smell can be presented by the mind in the form of flashbacks – as if they are happening right now. The distress during the traumatic event, and this continued distress is what causes that changes in the brain, and the subsequent symptoms of PTSD.
There is a second, subtype of PTSD, called Complex PTSD, or C-PTSD. This is usually a result of repeated, or sustained traumas, and presents in a similar way to PTSD, but with some additional symptoms too. Any of the causes noted above (and many others) can cause C-PTSD if they have been experienced repeatedly, or if someone has experience a number of different traumas. You can find out more about C-PTSD in children and young adults specifically here.
- Why is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so topical?
- Sayed, S., Iacoviello, B.M. & Charney, D.S. Risk Factors for the Development of Psychopathology Following Trauma. Curr Psychiatry Rep 17, 70 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-015-0612-y
- Sareen J. (2014). Posttraumatic stress disorder in adults: impact, comorbidity, risk factors, and treatment. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 59(9), 460–467. https://doi.org/10.1177/070674371405900902
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.