Signs & Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Learn about posttraumatic stress disorder

A diagnosable mental health condition that manifests following a trauma is posttraumatic stress disorder. Also known as PTSD, symptoms of this mental illness typically occur in response to witnessing, learning about, or experiencing a trauma and can cause a great deal of distress for sufferers. Including avoidance, re-experiencing, and hyperarousal symptoms, this disorder can disrupt functioning in several areas of a person’s life.

Being the victim of abuse or crime, experiencing the sudden death of a loved one, surviving a disaster or accident, and/or exposure to war are all examples of traumas that can eventually lead to the manifestation of posttraumatic stress disorder. Those who grapple with this illness often experience high levels of anxiety, exaggerated startle responses, and ongoing feelings of panic. Allowing such symptoms to persist can make a person vulnerable to the development of another mental illness, substance abuse problem, and impairment in one’s social, familial, academic, and/or occupational life. Individuals who feel they are experiencing such strife or notice PTSD symptoms in someone they care for should consult with a mental health professional and discuss the need for treatment and options for care of PTSD that can meet a sufferer’s individual needs.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder

While it is known that a preceding trauma triggers the onset of posttraumatic stress disorder, there are a number of other contributing factors that can lead to the development of this mental health condition. The following are widely accepted explanations by professionals in the mental health field that elaborate on the causes and risk factors for PTSD:

Genetic: People who have a family history of anxiety disorders have a greater susceptibility to the development of PTSD after a traumatic event. Because of this finding, posttraumatic stress disorder can have a genetic influence.

Physical: Individuals who meet diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder often experience structural changes in their brains. Through the use of neuroimaging, it has been realized that these structural changes are most likely caused by the chemical changes that are also known to occur in those with PTSD. These chemical changes are responsible for the dysregulated moods in sufferers and are also the likely cause of the ongoing anxious feelings that are experienced as well.  

Environmental: The onset of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms is greatly impacted by a person’s environment as a traumatic event or circumstance triggers this mental health condition. The chances of developing this disorder can also increase if a person experiences chronic stress prior to experiencing, witnessing, or learning about a trauma.

Risk Factors:

  • Lack of appropriate and healthy coping skills
  • Exposure to trauma, abuse, neglect, and/or violence
  • Experiencing chronic stress
  • Family history of anxiety disorders
  • Being female
  • Preexisting anxiety disorder or other mental health condition
  • Having an inadequate support system

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder

If a person learns about, witnesses, or experiences severe trauma, the symptoms of PTSD that can occur as a result could also be severe and elicit mental health treatment in order to alleviate the symptoms of this mental illness. The following signs and symptoms suggest that a person is grappling with posttraumatic stress disorder after some type of trauma has taken place:

Re-experiencing symptoms:

  • Recurring nightmares
  • Flashbacks that make an individual feel as if the trauma is happening again
  • Intrusive memories about the trauma
  • Physiological reactions when reminded of the trauma (e.g. sweating, labored breathing, increased heart rate)

Avoidance symptoms:

  • Avoiding people, places, or situation that are reminiscent of the trauma
  • Feeling detached from the world around one
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Declined interest in things or activities that were once enjoyed
  • Inability to remember details about the trauma

Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Having an exaggerated startle response
  • Poor concentration
  • Inability to sleep
  • Ongoing concerns about impending doom
  • Feeling on edge
  • Experiencing angry outbursts


Effects of posttraumatic stress disorder

The symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder can cause a great deal of devastation in a person’s life if symptoms are allowed to remain without treatment. With the potential to span across every area of an individual’s life, the listed effects are likely to occur and have a lasting impact on a person’s overall wellbeing:

  • Decline in quality and quantity of interpersonal relationships
  • Chronic pain
  • Development of a substance abuse problem
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Suicide attempts
  • Loss of employment
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Poor academic functioning
  • Academic failure
  • Impaired occupational functioning
  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Family discord

Co-Occurring Disorders

Posttraumatic stress disorder and co-occurring disorders

The distressing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder have the ability to trigger the onset of symptoms associated with another mental health condition. The following disorders are those that can be diagnosed alongside a clinical diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder; disorders that could also require treatment if a person seeks mental healthcare for PTSD:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias

My severe depression had taken over my life. I’m so thankful for San Juan Capestrano Hospital for giving me the strength to start living my life again to the fullest.

– Luis S.