PTSD is a complex disorder. No one knows why two individuals subjected to the same situation can have different reactions—with one coming out of the experience unscathed and the other developing posttraumatic stress disorder. Decades after the introduction of PTSD in the DSM-III, there is still no definitive answer to what causes PTSD. Researchers believe there is no single answer. As with all mental health disorders, there are different factors involved in the development of PTSD.
“Three factors influencing the likelihood that a child or adolescent will develop [PTSD] are severity of the traumatic event, parental reaction to the traumatic event and physical proximity to the traumatic event.”— Laura J. Greco and Wendy M. Garcia
PTSD became a legitimate disorder in 1980 following the Vietnam War. First identified among military personnel, it was found that PTSD does not only affect soldiers but civilians who have experienced or witnessed traumatizing events. Researchers Tennen and Affleck believe that there may be certain personality traits that help some people cope with stressful events in their lives.
People who seek out others and those with a sense of agreeableness and conscientiousness are more likely to draw strength from traumatic experiences. Children who are particularly resilient may be able to bounce back from traumas and continue to do well throughout their lives, especially if they have a strong support system.
Traumatic Events That Might Cause PTSD
- Military combat
- Rape or sexual abuse
- Physical assault
- Sudden unexpected death of a loved one
- Terminal illness in the family
- Natural disasters: fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes
- Witnessing a killing or serious injury
- Domestic violence
- Torture or acts of terror
- Being abused as a child
- Being threatened with a weapon
- Neglect or abandonment
- Vehicular accidents
- War or terrorist attacks
- Emotional abuse
- Ongoing harassment
Biological Reaction to Stress and Trauma
The body has a sophisticated response system to cope with a sudden threat. During a stressful event, the brain releases two essential hormones: adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenaline is responsible for the fight-or-flight response; which helps you focus on the threat and quickly decide whether to run away or confront it. On the other hand, the hormone cortisol raises your blood sugar levels in the muscles and brain to prepare you in surviving the ongoing danger. When the danger is gone, your minds and body will return to their normal condition. Adrenaline and cortisol production slows down. However, a traumatic event or a situation that puts your life in danger is not a typical threat. When this happens, your body stress response can be extreme. You may experience overwhelming psychological and physical symptoms that can lead to PTSD.
Brain Functioning and Genetics
Researchers found that the brains of people with PTSD are different than those without the disorder. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex have a different structure and activity in PTSD sufferers. The amygdala controls the emotion, learning, and memory, while the prefrontal cortex controls the stress response and erasing memories of stressful events. According to experts, these differences could be the reason why some people are more vulnerable to the production of intense and fearful memories that produce PTSD symptoms.
Neglect, Child Abuse, and Domestic Violence
Children who suffer neglect and abuse face a higher risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder later in life. These traumatic experiences in a child may affect their brain structures and functioning, increasing their vulnerability to negative events and making them prone to later development of PTSD. One study found that child abuse is linked to emotional dysregulation, which is also strongly associated with PTSD. Children who have been exposed to abuse may develop emotional regulation problems that persist in adulthood.
Lack of Social Support
Societal factors such as supportive family members or friends is an important factor in enduring trauma and recovering from PTSD symptoms. Those with limited social support are at greater risk for PTSD. It is important for individuals to seek social support after a traumatic experience and not to isolate themselves. A supportive social network is said to help individuals cope with trauma and thwart stress-related psychological pathologies. Limited social support may also lead to more severe PTSD symptoms.
- Military veterans and civilians in war zones are at risk of developing PTSD. They are also at greater risk for other psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
- Terrorism (9/11 attack), wars, and natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina) also result in high rates of PTSD.
- Health care professionals and social workers who assist trauma victims are twice as likely to develop PTSD.
- Women have higher rates of PTSD than men. More than half of all women experience trauma at least once in their life.
- Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are at greater risk of developing PTSD. Experts believe that it is their economic status rather than their ethnicities that put them at risk. These groups are more likely to be poor and experience negative life events.
- Someone who is psychologically stable with a positive outlook and good coping skills at the time of trauma is less likely to develop PTSD.