When someone develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fear, anxiety and memories of trauma last for a long period of time and interfere with how they cope with everyday life.
PTSD is caused by witnessing such a traumatic event — an event that was potentially life-threatening, or involved serious injury or sexual violence. Although a relationship break-up or losing a job can feel devastating, these are not the kinds of events that usually cause PTSD.
The kinds of experiences that can potentially cause PTSD are:
- serious accidents
- natural disasters such as bushfires, floods and earthquakes
- living in a war zone, as a victim of war or a soldier
- sexual assault or threatened sexual assault
- serious physical assault
- seeing people hurt or killed
Anyone can develop PTSD, but some people are at greater risk. The reasons why some people develop PTSD while others do not are not completely understood. There is probably a complex mixture of reasons.
Risk factors for developing PTSD include:
- repeated trauma, such as living in a war zone for a long time
- having had a mental illness in the past, like anxiety or depression
- a history of trauma or abuse in early childhood
- experiencing very severe trauma
- not having enough support afterwards
- extra life stresses after the trauma, such as the loss of loved ones, a home or a job
- the type of traumatic event, with rape or sexual assault being more likely to lead to PTSD than other events
PTSD is not the only mental health disorder caused by experiencing traumatic events, and depression and anxiety disorders may be just as common. Depression, generalised anxiety, PTSD and agoraphobia are the most common disorders that can be caused by traumatic events.
If someone appears to be experiencing these symptoms of PTSD for longer than one month after a traumatic event, it's important to talk to a doctor or other health professional.
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Last reviewed: November 2018