Medically reviewed by: Bisma Anwar, MA, MSc, LMHC

Reviewed On: November 27, 2022

Updated 1/26/2023

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can potentially occur after witnessing or going through a severely traumatic event or events. Military PTSD is a form of PTSD that many combat veterans develop after returning home. While PTSD in veterans can cause many distressing mental and physical symptoms, including anxiety and flashbacks, there are ways to cope with these symptoms and get the help you need. Read on to learn more about traumatic stress treatment options, and find help with veterans therapy

Signs of Military PTSD in Veterans

Symptoms of PTSD don’t always occur in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Many military personnel don’t experience symptoms until months or years after returning to civilian life, making signs of PTSD challenging to recognize. 

“PTSD is grouped into 4 main clusters that include symptoms of: avoidance (avoiding memories, people, or places that remind you of the trauma); arousal (feeling more on edge, hyper vigilant, jumpy, etc.); intrusion (nightmares, flashbacks, etc.); and changes to mood and thought patterns (increased depression, irritability, social isolation, etc.).”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

While not everyone with PTSD has the same symptoms, this is what each category of symptoms may look like:

  • Intrusive memories: People with PTSD often experience recurring reminders of their traumatic experiences. This can include flashbacks, nightmares, and distressing thoughts.
  • Hyperarousal: When we’re in danger or stress, our bodies go into a state of high alert. PTSD can cause someone to feel this way all the time. It can lead to jumpiness, irritability, reckless behavior, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.
  • Negative changes in feelings or beliefs: Traumatic experiences can make it harder for people to feel positive emotions. It can cause some people to see themselves or the world negatively. 
  • Avoidance: It can be difficult for people with PTSD to cope with the memories of their trauma, which can lead them to avoid places or situations that remind them of the event. This can lead to social withdrawal.

The Vet Center can provide support if you or a loved one is struggling with military PTSD symptoms. These counseling centers are located throughout the US and offer free and confidential therapeutic services to military veterans and active duty members with PTSD. Counselors and staff can also connect you with support services and assist with updating VA disability claims to reflect a PTSD diagnosis. 

“If you’re concerned that you may be experiencing PTSD symptoms related to your military deployment, you are not alone. Consider reaching out to a therapist who has a background in understanding trauma and the military population.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Causes and Risk Factors of PTSD in Veterans

So, what causes PTSD in veterans? Many service members are exposed to distressing and traumatic events during military service. While PTSD is caused by exposure to trauma, experts aren’t sure why some people develop PTSD and others don’t. An estimated 70% of adults experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives, yet only 20% will go on to develop PTSD. 

Research does show that several factors make veterans more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD. Combat exposure significantly increases risk, and it can also increase the severity of PTSD symptoms. People with co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, are also at increased risk for PTSD.

While PTSD can cause sleep disturbances, many people report difficulty sleeping before the onset of their symptoms. One study found that veterans who reported nightmares before deployment were more likely to develop PTSD after seeing combat. A lack of social support after a traumatic experience can also contribute to symptoms.

How common is military PTSD in veterans?

In 2017, the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in California surveyed more than 5,826 veterans. The survey found that 12.9% of participants had been diagnosed with PTSD. This is significantly higher than the rate in the general population, which is 6%.  

Some studies show even higher rates of PTSD in veterans. For example, The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study found that 15% of veterans had been diagnosed with PTSD. Veterans without a diagnosis may also report symptoms, such as flashbacks or hypervigilance. 

“Military members and veterans are at increased risk of developing PTSD. Not only might they have been exposed to developmental traumas like childhood abuse/neglect like the general population, but they may also be exposed to other types of traumas specific to their military service. Common military-specific traumas include: adverse deployments, air, and vehicle mishaps/accidents, and military sexual trauma.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

What Triggers Military PTSD in Veterans?

People with military PTSD may experience anxiety, flashbacks, or other adverse reactions after exposure to something that reminds them of their trauma. Identifying these triggers can make it easier to manage symptoms and practice mental health care.

“PTSD in vets is caused by the same things that cause PTSD in civilians — trauma. Any time someone experiences an adverse, dangerous, or otherwise traumatic incident, they’re at risk of later developing PTSD or another trauma-related disorder.”

Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD

Loud noises

Fireworks, the sound of a car backfiring, and other loud noises can all trigger PTSD symptoms. Certain sounds may remind veterans of noises related to their trauma, such as gunfire or explosions. 


Movies, television, and news programs depicting war or combat can all be triggers. Veterans may also be triggered by other media, like online news or social media posts related to the trauma they have experienced. 

Physical touch

Many people with post-traumatic stress react intensely to physical touch, especially if the contact is unexpected or unwanted. Not only can touch be startling, but it can be a reminder of a traumatic event.  


Scents can trigger vivid memories and strong emotions. It’s common for smells like burning rubber, gasoline, and smoke to cause distress in veterans.

Large crowds

For people with PTSD, large crowds can feel overwhelming. When surrounded by others, someone might feel like they’re in danger, even if there are no signs of a threat.

PTSD Treatment Options for Veterans


Our brains have a built-in alarm system intended to protect us from danger. PTSD can alter the structure and function of the brain, making it difficult to distinguish between past threats and what’s happening in the present. Certain medications can change how the brain responds to fear, easing PTSD symptoms. 

Currently, the FDA has approved the use of two medications for PTSD: sertraline and paroxetine. While these medications are typically used as a first-line treatment, there are times when other medications might be recommended. 


Therapy for PTSD can help people process their trauma and improve military mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based, trauma-focused treatment that can help people challenge the thoughts and emotions brought on by PTSD. Studies show that CBT for PTSD is one of the most effective ways to reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans.

While it can be difficult to find a therapist or make time for appointments, online therapy can make help far more accessible. Talkspace can connect you with mental health professionals who have experience working with veterans. 

Natural remedies

In addition to medication and therapy, many natural remedies can help you cope with the symptoms of PTSD. For example, meditation and breathing exercises can increase calm feelings while decreasing stress. Healthy practices, such as a consistent sleep schedule, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise, can positively impact mental health. In addition to these natural remedies, alternative treatments such as service dog training programs have been found to be statistically significant for veterans with PTSD.

Get Professional Help for Military Vets with Talkspace

Whether you recently returned from deployment or you’ve been struggling with military PTSD symptoms for years, therapy can help. With the help of an experienced therapist, you can identify triggers and find ways to cope with your symptoms. If you know someone experiencing PTSD from the military, you can learn how to help veterans with PTSD through Talkspace.

Talkspace makes it easy to access essential support and resources related to PTSD in veterans.  

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