When someone develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fear, anxiety and memories of trauma persist for a long period of time and interfere with their ability to function in life. Symptoms of PTSD can vary greatly, ranging from subtle changes in day-to-day life, withdrawal and numbness, to distressing flashbacks or physical anxiety.
Although a relationship break-up or losing a job can feel devastating, these are not the kinds of events that can cause PTSD. Events that can cause PTSD are potentially life-threatening, or involve serious injury or sexual violence. Witnessing such a traumatic event can also lead to 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
- serious physical assault
- seeing people hurt or killed
The reasons why some people develop PTSD while others can cope are not completely understood. PTSD risks may be a complex mixture of factors.
Risk factors for developing PTSD include:
- repeated trauma, such as living in a war zone for a long time
- a past history of mental disorder such as anxiety or depression
- a history of trauma or abuse in early childhood
- the severity of the trauma
- lack of social support
- 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 potentially traumatic events, and depression and anxiety disorders may be just as common. Depression, generalised anxiety, PTSD and agoraphobia are the most common disorders.
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 2016