Enhancing Your Healing Journey by Recognizing PTSD Triggering Events
Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Effects of Distressing Events
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), categorizes PTSD within the “Other Trauma and Stressor Related Disorder family” to distinguish it from other anxiety disorders.
For those dealing with PTSD, symptoms may encompass distressing thoughts, emotional turmoil related to the trauma, nightmares, hyperarousal, flashbacks, anger, and memory challenges.
If you can relate to this, remember that you’re not alone. PTSD is a prevalent psychiatric disorder, affecting approximately 8 million adults in the U.S.
Equipping Yourself for Healing: Recognizing PTSD Triggers and its Neurological Development
Root Causes of PTSD
PTSD can be triggered by various distressing events, often emerging when feelings of:
- Profound horror
- Fear of life-threatening situations
It’s more common than one might realize. For instance, over 22% of individuals involved in auto accidents develop PTSD out of the 50 million people experiencing road-related trauma annually.
Research indicates that interpersonal crimes, like rape or being held at gunpoint, tend to lead to higher PTSD rates compared to noninterpersonal traumas like natural disasters.
Typical causes of PTSD encompass:
- Being a victim of a crime
- Traumatic childbirth experiences, including loss of a baby
- Childhood or domestic abuse
- Homicide of a loved one
- Instances of mass violence, such as mall shootings
- Natural disasters
- Physical violence
- Severe medical events, like intensive care stays
- Serious accidents
- Sexual assault
- War or combat
PTSD in War Veterans
The nature of war exposes many individuals to the risk of PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
- 11% to 20% of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans developed PTSD annually.
- 12% of Gulf War veterans developed PTSD within a year.
- An estimated 30% of Vietnam War veterans experienced PTSD at some point in their lives.
Additional factors influencing PTSD and other mental health conditions in veterans encompass:
- The location of the war
- The type of adversary
- One’s role in the war
- Political aspects of the war
In a study conducted in 2006, it was found that 53% of prisoners of war met the criteria for lifetime PTSD, with an even higher rate (around 84%) for those stationed in brutal camps.
PTSD Risk Factors
PTSD can affect individuals of various backgrounds and ages, although it’s more common in certain groups.
Research indicates that Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans in the United States experience higher rates of PTSD than non-Latino whites. Additionally, women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
Women are more likely to experience childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault, while men are more prone to physical violence, accidents, combat, disaster exposure, or being witnesses to death or injury.
Other risk factors include:
- Being a refugee
- Genetic predisposition
- Additional stressors on top of trauma, such as poverty, homelessness, or grief
- Lack of support from family or friends
- Physical injury or pain during the traumatic event
- Past episodes of depression or anxiety
- Repeated exposure to trauma
- Time spent in foster care
- High-risk occupations, such as military service or law enforcement
The Development of PTSD
Experiencing a traumatic event can lead to lasting alterations in brain regions linked to stress, particularly the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
When faced with a traumatic event, your body releases high levels of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), inducing the “fight-or-flight” response. This readies your body for defense while dulling pain and senses.
The concept of “freeze” is now recognized as another potential response.
Body in a Stuck State
For many individuals, severe stress reactions are temporary, but for others, traumatic experiences can lead to extreme mental distress and illness, including PTSD.
While about 50% to 60% of the general population encounters at least one traumatic event, only around 8% develop PTSD.
For those living with PTSD, the body remains stuck in fight, flight, or freeze mode, constantly releasing high levels of stress hormones when exposed to new stressors.
In the PTSD brain, the amygdala becomes overactive, identifying threats and infusing memories with intense emotion. A hyperactive amygdala interprets threats everywhere.
PTSD can also result in a smaller hippocampus, the brain region responsible for regulating stress hormones, memory, learning, fear conditioning, and fear learning.
Glucocorticoids, or stress hormones, destroy hippocampal cells during PTSD, diminishing the brain’s ability to manage fearful memories. As a result, the brain replays fearful memories instead of processing that the traumatic event has ended, contributing to persistent flashbacks and nightmares.
The Role of Genetics
Genetics plays a substantial role in PTSD. A comprehensive genetic study involving over 200,000 individuals, including 30,000 living with PTSD, found that genetics contribute to 5% to 20% of PTSD risk after a traumatic event.
The study revealed that PTSD, like other mental health disorders, is highly polygenic, associated with numerous genetic variants, each making a minor contribution to the condition.
Six gene regions (“loci”) were significantly linked to PTSD risk, with three of them specific to ancestral heritage (European and African).
These findings indicate that inflammatory and immune mechanisms might play a role in PTSD, aligning with earlier research. The study suggests that genetics holds an equally crucial role in PTSD as it does in major depression and other mental health conditions.
Additionally, the study demonstrated significant genetic overlap between PTSD symptoms and symptoms of other conditions like schizophrenia, depression, asthma, insomnia, and heart disease.
If you’re living with PTSD, know that you’re not alone, and assistance is available. Effective therapy and medication can control PTSD and alleviate symptoms. Regardless of genetics or clinical presentation, there is always hope.
Advances in research have significantly contributed to understanding the causes of PTSD, leading to the development of highly effective trauma-focused treatments.
The most well-supported therapies for PTSD include:
- Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)