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May 8, 2024

What Causes PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arises from a combination of biological, social, and psychological factors, and not everyone exposed to traumatic events develops the condition. The recovery process is personalized, involving therapy and community support, to help individuals find lasting relief.

Sofia Noori, MD, MPH
What Causes PTSD?

When we think about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), we often associate it with traumatic events like wars, natural disasters, or personal assaults. However, not everyone who experiences such events develops PTSD. This leads us to an important question: what exactly causes PTSD, and why do some people develop it while others don't?

The Basics: Trauma and PTSD

First, let's understand what we mean by 'trauma'. Traumatic events are experiences that put either a person or someone close to them at risk of serious harm or death. These can include things like physical abuse, sexual assault, car accidents, natural disasters, or violent attacks. PTSD can develop after someone experiences or witnesses such events.

Who Develops PTSD?

Interestingly, not everyone who experiences traumatic events ends up with PTSD. It's estimated that while many individuals undergo at least one traumatic event in their lives, only about 6-9% develop PTSD. This suggests that multiple factors, including biological, social, and psychological elements, influence how individuals cope with trauma.

Addressing the misconception that developing PTSD reflects personal weakness is crucial. When a trauma is severe enough, it's normal for symptoms to arise afterward. However, the key indicator of PTSD is the persistence of these symptoms beyond a certain period. If symptoms fail to improve or subside after roughly 30 days, it may signify the onset of PTSD.

What's Happening Inside the Body?

To understand PTSD, it's helpful to know more about our body's stress response. Imagine you're walking in the woods and suddenly see a bear. Your heart races, you start to sweat โ€“ this is your body's way of preparing you to either fight the bear or run away as fast as you can. This "fight or flight" response is normal and is regulated by our body's hormones and certain brain areas.

In PTSD, this stress response gets disrupted:
Hormones: Normally, our bodies produce a stress hormone called cortisol, which helps us handle stressful situations. But in some people with PTSD, the levels of cortisol might be lower than usual, making it harder for them to manage stress.
Brain changes: PTSD can affect different parts of the brain:
The amygdala, which helps process emotions, might become overactive, making a person feel more fearful.
The prefrontal cortex, which is like our brain's 'control center' for emotions and impulses, might not work as well, making it harder to manage fear and stress.
The hippocampus, important for memory, might be affected, leading to trouble telling the difference between past and present memories.

Environmental and Psychological Factors

It's not just biology. The environment and psychological factors matter too:
Support systems: Support systems play a crucial role in how individuals navigate trauma. Research underscores the significance of supportive friends and family in aiding someone's journey through difficult times. Additionally, insights from PTSD trainings highlight another important factor: proximity to the trauma can heighten the risk of developing PTSD
Previous trauma: If someone has experienced trauma before, especially in childhood, they might be more likely to develop PTSD later on in life.
Mental health: Pre-existing mental health issues can also play a role in making someone more vulnerable to developing PTSD.

Recovery: Not One-Size-Fits-All

PTSD is a multifaceted condition that can affect individuals who have undergone traumatic experiences. Nevertheless, not every person who faces trauma will necessarily develop PTSD, and the path to recovery varies for each individual. Recognizing the diverse array of factors influencing PTSD can aid in offering support to those grappling with this complex condition. Additionally, it's noteworthy to mention that the number of therapy sessions is tailored to each person's needs, typically spanning from approximately 7 to 15 sessions.

Recovery from PTSD varies individually from person to person depending on their unique circumstances. For many, trauma therapy provided by a licensed counselor or psychiatrist trained in PTSD techniques, can lead to rapid and long-lasting relief. Some may need medication to help manage their symptoms and ongoing community support and perhaps somatic healing. There is no single "right" way to recover but there is hope for lasting peace for every trauma survivor.

If you're facing challenges with PTSD or anxiety, rest assured that help is available. At Nema, our specialists are proficient in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) tailored for effective treatment of PTSD and anxiety, aiming for lasting recovery. If you're interested in learning more, we invite you to reach out to our compassionate team. Click here to schedule a complimentary consultation.