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Written by:Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Published On: March 15, 2022

Medically reviewed by: Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

Reviewed On: March 15, 2022

Updated On: July 14, 2023


Most people experience trauma at some point in their life. It can cause various reactions — from physical to psychological responses — including increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tense muscles, excessive worry, and perspiration. Reaction to trauma can be invasive and overwhelming. In the most extreme cases, it can even become debilitating.

Most of us recover from the initial symptoms of trauma fairly quickly. However, people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop long-term anxiety symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event.

PTSD causes you to feel frightened and stressed out, sometimes even when nothing is threatening you. If you or a loved one experienced a trauma and you’re wondering about PTSD, keep reading. We’re looking at what causes PTSD, the risk factors, and what you can do to better manage the long-term symptoms PTSD may cause.

19 Most Common Causes of PTSD

What can cause PTSD? Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with war veterans who see terrible acts of violence. However, first responders, emergency room doctors, or anyone else who’s exposed to trauma can just as easily develop PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can happen anytime we experience a violent, unexpected, or shocking act that’s difficult to process. It can occur whether you actually experience a trauma first hand, or if it’s something you simply witnessed, even from a distance.

What constitutes “traumatic” will differ from person to person, so when trying to discern: what is the leading cause of PTSD, there really aren’t any tried and true standards we can look to. However, it’s not uncommon for PTSD to occur as the result of someone who’s involved with or has witnessed any of the following 19 most common causes of PTSD:

  • Fire
  • Execution
  • Road rage
  • Electrocution
  • Being robbed
  • Imprisonment
  • Marital infidelity
  • Traumatic childbirth
  • Sexual assault or rape
  • An automobile accident
  • The death of a loved one
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Kidnapping or hostage-situations
  • Political or civil unrest
  • Witnessing others being killed or hurt
  • Being diagnosed with a terminal disease (or having someone close to you being diagnosed)
  • Physical assault, bullying, or harassment
  • Military combat or any type of violent fighting
  • A loved one’s death by suicide

PTSD can happen to anyone, at any age. It can affect children, war veterans, police officers, medical personnel, or anyone else who experiences or witnesses a tragic act. In general, any event that makes you fear for your, or a loved one’s, life, sanity, or safety can result in post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When thinking about the common causes of PTSD, it’s important to note that not all people who experience traumatic events go on to develop full PTSD symptoms, but they may experience aspects of these symptoms. There is help available for everyone who has experienced a traumatic event — no one should struggle alone with their concerns.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

Risk Factors for PTSD

The National Center for PTSD reports that more than 7% of Americans will likely develop PTSD at some point in life. Women are more likely than men to develop it, and genetic factors may also make some people more likely to develop it than others.

It’s true that most people who experience a traumatic event will not develop PTSD. However, some risk factors that might make you more likely to experience this mental health condition can include:

  • Exposure to multiple dangerous or traumatic events
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect during childhood
  • History of alcohol or substance abuse
  • Witnessing a dead or mutilated body
  • History of mental health conditions
  • Lacking social support
  • Genetic predisposition

Some research shows you’re more likely to develop PTSD if you have to deal with extra stress after a traumatic event, such as enduring pain or injury, loss of a job, or the death of a loved one.

“While there are important risk factors that contribute to the development of PTSD, it’s also important to know that getting support and reaching out to communities that can help will make a difference. For example, a veteran who attends a group with other veterans can connect with others who have experienced similar situations and decrease their isolation while connecting with other people experiencing similar symptoms — there can be significant healing within a shared community.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

How Do Traumatic Events Lead to PTSD?

It’s really difficult to isolate exactly how any given incident might cause PTSD. Processing a traumatic event is incredibly different for everyone, so a variety of factors come into play when trying to establish exactly how, or if, a trauma will lead to the development of PTSD symptoms.

“Being able to process a traumatic event(s) is different for each individual, and a variety of factors contribute to the development of PTSD symptoms. It’s crucial to remember that, when we’re overwhelmed by trauma, the impact can be experienced by people in a wide variety of ways, both physically and mentally, that can develop into PTSD either in the short term or later on.”

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R), BC-TMH Jill Daino

Symptoms of PTSD

NIMH reports symptoms of PTSD typically start about 3 months after experiencing trauma. That said, PTSD doesn’t follow all rules, and symptoms can emerge much, much later  sometimes even years  after the trauma occurs.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), the main criteria for diagnosed PTSD states that symptoms must be:

  • Present for at least 1 month
  • Severe enough to disrupt daily life functioning
  • Unrelated to another illness, substance use, or prescription medications

By now it should be pretty clear that PTSD causes can vary from person to person. As you may expect, recovery can greatly differ, too. Some people recover within 6 months, some take up to a year, and some never fully get back to their pre-trauma mindset and ability to function.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is also associated with co-occurring conditions, including depression, alcohol and drug use or abuse, and one or more other anxiety disorders.

Finding Help for PTSD

Certain risk factors increase your chance of developing PTSD. However, there are also a number of resilience factors that might increase the odds of successful recovery.

Some resilience factors that promote PTSD recovery can include:

  • Joining a local community or online PTSD support group
  • Educating yourself about post-traumatic stress disorder via authoritative sources
  • Seeking support from friends, family members, doctors or therapists, and others who understand PTSD
  • Learning effective coping strategies to have on-hand if you ever experience trauma again (or that you can use when at the onset of symptoms)
  • Practicing ways to develop confidence about your ability to act or react appropriately in dangerous situations

Holistic help: It’s also possible to increase resiliency and learn how to deal with PTSD symptoms by practicing holistic techniques to improve your overall mind-body connection. Some techniques that have proven effective in healing from PTSD naturally include:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Tai Chi
  • Pranayama (deep breathing)
  • Visualization
  • Sun gazing
  • Candle burning
  • Taking mineral salt baths
  • Repeating mantras
  • Journaling

Talk therapy: Of course, psychotherapy (talk therapy) can be incredibly helpful in how to treat PTSD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT) have both proven to be extremely effective types of therapy for PTSD.

A professional mental health counselor or therapist can teach you ways to anticipate, recognize, and proactively deal with your post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Talk therapy sessions typically offer significant benefits in just 6 to 12 weeks. Online therapy is a viable option to get help for PTSD.

Medication: PTSD prescription medications may be a helpful option in the short term. Some drugs used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms include anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, antidepressants like *Zoloft, *Paxil, or Prozac, mood stabilizer drugs like Topamax, and beta-blockers like Minipress.

*Only FDA-approved drugs to treat PTSD

Understand that while prescription medications can treat PTSD symptoms, they’re not intended for long-term use. In addition to addiction concerns, medication does nothing to address and alleviate the root problem that’s causing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing ongoing trauma after surviving a terrible incident, it’s important to get help. Unaddressed symptoms of different types of PTSD can become worse over time. They can even eventually cause long-term disruptions to life. Learn how to help someone with PTSD if a loved one is suffering.Untreated PTSD can also increase the risk of developing other anxiety-related disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), chronic depression, social anxiety disorder, and, in extreme cases, suicidal tendencies. The good news, though, is help is out there. You don’t have to battle PTSD alone.

See References

Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R

Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH, is a clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience as a therapist, clinical supervisor, and program director. She works to support quality clinical care at Talkspace. Her work as a clinician and trainer focuses on the mental health impact of body image concerns and eating disorders across the lifespan.

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