The Causes of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) sometimes develops after an individual has gone through an event that causes enormous psychological stress. Any of a number of events could trigger PTSD; typically they invoke fear or horror as well as physical pain and suffering. The following list is an indication of the types of event involved but is not exhaustive:

  • Military combat
  • Sexual assault and abuse
  • Violent crime
  • Terrorism
  • Natural disasters
  • Serious accidents
  • Witnessing violence

Some people are more at risk

Although everyone is affected by this type of traumatic event, only about one in three will go on to develop PTSD. Research suggests that PTSD changes how the body responds to stress and that there are several reasons why some people are more susceptible than others; a combination of physical, psychological, genetic and social factors are involved. These risk factors are among those that affect the likelihood of an individual falling victim to PTSD:

  • The duration of the traumatic event
  • The number of events the individual has endured
  • The severity of the event
  • The emotional condition of the individual prior to event
  • Support from family and friends after the event
  • If the individual has a history of mental illness or has suffered child abuse
  • Children, adolescents, females and people with learning disabilities are thought to be most at risk

The science

No one is entirely sure what causes PTSD. Some suggest that it is part of the human survival instinct with the flashbacks intended to prepare you for further traumatic events and to keep you alert, enabling you to react quickly should you encounter another incident.

Also, people with PTSD have been shown to have abnormally high levels of stress hormones like adrenalin which trigger what is often called the “fight or flight” reaction, these hormones being produced even when there is no danger is present.

Scientists researching the causes of PTSD speculate that the mind cannot process data and emotions in the normal way after a severely traumatic experience. Brain scans show that the areas of the brain that deal with emotional processing are different in people with PTSD.

Researchers have found that:

  • The amygdala, which plays a major role in the processing of emotions and is associated with how people respond to fear, may be hyper active in those suffering PTSD.
  • The hippocampus, which is involved in the formation, organisation and storage of memory, appears to lose some of its volume in people with PTSD. Changes in the hippocampus may affect fear, anxiety, memory and flashbacks.
  • The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, a hormonal system that is involved in normal stress reactions, is disrupted creating “false alarms” and causing damage to he hippocampus. This is a neurochemical dysfunction that might be curable with medication.

As more research is done it is likely that physiological changes that accompany PTSD will be identified and suitable treatment formulated. Meantime, it is important that PTSD sufferers are given the help they need as early as possible to ensure a speedy and successful outcome.

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