What are the Causes of PTSD?

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson we will briefly explore the process of diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder and examine the broad causes that are currently associated with a PTSD diagnosis.

Diagnosing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

If you've seen the film American Sniper, you know it centers around flashbacks experienced by the main character as a result of the trauma he suffered due to his experiences in war. Those flashbacks are one of the most common and prevalent symptoms in persons suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The succinct description of PTSD is that a person 'can't stop remembering' the traumatic event. However, military experience isn't the sole type of event that can lead to being diagnosed with PTSD.

In order to receive a clinical diagnosis of PTSD, a person must have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event first-hand, not heard about it, read about it, or seen it on television (so if you do see American Sniper it will not lead to you being diagnosed with PTSD).

The nature and severity of the event is directly correlated with the likelihood that an individual will develop symptoms of PTSD. The more severe the event, the longer and more direct the exposure to a traumatic event, or repeat exposure to a traumatic event(s) are more likely to result in an individual presenting with symptoms consistent with PTSD. But what sorts of events lead to this disorder?

Common Causes of PTSD

Military service in a war

Once referred to as shell shock or battle fatigue, veterans who came home from war were many of the first known groups to suffer the symptoms of PTSD. Over half of veterans who served in the Vietnam war are known to suffer from PTSD. Many World War II veterans also presented with PTSD upon retirement from the workforce, several years after their service.

Car accidents

Car accidents are known for triggering symptoms of PTSD. The loss of control of the vehicle and the experience of the automobile hitting -- or being hit by -- another car can be an intensely traumatic event that easily leads to symptoms of PTSD.

Rape and sexual assault

Rape is the most known genre of traumatic incident that leads to symptoms of PTSD. Symptoms persist for months and even years after victimization, leading to avoidance of any places or behaviors that the victim associates with the attack.

Experiencing a war

Refugees leaving war-torn countries also experience PTSD. Many persons residing in war-torn areas of the world witness horrific events and suffer PTSD symptoms for years. Mass murders, bombing, and burning buildings that kill many people often associated with war are directly correlated with PTSD.

Witnessing or being victimized by an act of violence

People who witness shootings, bombings, muggings, kidnappings, or other acts of violence often experience these events a short distance from where they occurred. The sensory details of these events are intense. Many people who lived in Manhattan on September 11, 2001 near the twin towers or responded to the attack suffer from PTSD. The same would be true for people who survive mass shootings.

Natural disasters

Disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes and floods are all associated with PTSD. These events often occur without warning and leave victims with little time to prepare or escape, elevating the sense of helplessness associated with PTSD symptoms. In some cases, people are physically present for the natural event itself and are left scrambling for survival. In other cases, images of the death and destruction that follow in the wake of a sudden powerful storm, and the helplessness associated with seeing all of one's property destroyed, are correlated with PTSD.

Personal medical issues that emerge without warning

One broad category that isn't discussed very often in association with PTSD is the sudden onset of dire medical conditions. A cancer diagnosis or heart attack can actually be associated with PTSD symptoms that complicate the recovery.

Difficult childbirth

Another cause of PTSD that is not frequently talked about is difficult childbirth. If a mother has an adverse reaction to drugs given to advance the labor process, or if the child(ren) is/are born and suffer from extreme illness, has/have birth defects, or even pass away shortly after birth, these events can all lead to PTSD after childbirth in the mother.

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