Causes of PTSD

Causes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is condition that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It’s estimated that 50% of people will experience a trauma at some point in their life and although the majority of people exposed to traumatic events only experience some short-term distress, 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). 

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 and we are adding content to this website all the time):

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. 

The prevalence of PTSD and C-PTSD as a result of certain traumas is something that continues to be monitored and researched, but current estimates show the following figures (please note this doesn’t include ALL causes of PTSD and is based on a wide variety of resources  – all linked in the sources section at the bottom of this page).

Causes of Complex 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 specifically here.

Why do some people develop PTSD and other don’t?

As much as science and research has continued to grow in the area, it’s still not clear why some people develop PTSD, whilst others who’ve been in a similar situation don’t develop the condition. We do however, know that anyone can develop PTSD, but some people are at greater risk.

A ‘risk factor’ is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition. Risk factors for the development of PTSD following a trauma fall into three categories: pre-trauma, peri-trauma and post-trauma factors.

  • ‘Pre-trauma factors’ can include age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, IQ levels, prior mental health issues, personality type (using avoidance as a coping mechanism) and neurobiological and genetic factors (serotonin transporter gene).
  • ‘Peri-trauma factors’ can include the duration/severity of trauma experience, fear of death, assaultive trauma, physical injury, and the perception that the trauma has ended.
  • ‘Post-trauma factors’ can include access to needed resources, high heart rate, financial stress, pain severity, peri-traumatic disassociation, disability, social support, specific cognitive patterns, and physical activity. 

Additionally, although we are still behind in gender- and sex-sensitive research and reporting, it’s been found that women have a two to three times higher risk of developing PTSD compared to men: The lifetime prevalence of PTSD is about 10–12% in women and 5–6% in men.  Several factors are involved explaining this difference – psychosocial and biological explanations (e.g. oxytocin related). Women also appear to have a more sensitised hypothalamus–pituitary–axis than men, while men appear to have a sensitised physiological hyperarousal system (which all changes how the brain functions in relation to stress and fear responses). 

‘Although there has been expansion of our understanding of PTSD during the last 30 years, numerous questions remain about the epidemiology and risk factors for development of PTSD. Basic questions about how common PTSD is remain unanswered. Most of the studies on the prevalence of PTSD have used general population or military veteran samples. The prevalence of PTSD among vulnerable groups, such as children and adolescents, elderly, ethnic minorities, refugees, and First Nations, Inuit, and Metis populations, has not been well established. Future work needs to address these important gaps.’

Sources
 

Hello! Did you find this information useful?

Please consider supporting PTSD UK with a donation to enable us to provide more information & resources to help us to support everyone affected by PTSD, no matter the trauma that caused it

PTSD UK Blog

You’ll find up-to-date news, research and information here along with some great tips to ease your PTSD in our blog.

Ralph Fiennes – Trigger Warnings Response

Guest Blog: Response to Ralph Fiennes – Trigger warnings in theatres This thought-provoking article has been written for PTSD UK by one of our supporters, Alex C, and addresses Ralph Fiennes’ recent remarks on trigger warnings in Theatre. Alex sheds

Read More »

Please don’t tell me I’m brave

Guest Blog: Living With PTSD – Please don’t tell me I’m brave ‘Adapting to living in the wake of trauma can mean maybe you aren’t ready to hear positive affirmations, and that’s ok too.’ and at PTSD UK, we wholeheartedly

Read More »

Emotional Flashbacks – Rachel

Emotional Flashbacks: Putting Words to a Lifetime of Confusing Feelings PTSD UK was founded with the desire to do what was possible to make sure nobody ever felt as alone, isolated or helpless as our Founder did in the midst

Read More »

Morning Mile March Challenge

events | walk PTSD UK’s Morning Mile March Challenge Sign up now PTSD UK’s Morning Mile March Challenge The challenge We all know ‘exercise is good for you’, and even a small amount can make a big difference. There are

Read More »

MAPS FDA request

NEWS: MAPS Submits Request for MDMA-Assisted Therapy Approval The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has formally submitted a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking approval for the use of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, as

Read More »

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.