PTSD Causes & Effects

Posttraumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD, is a mental health disorder that includes the development of upsetting symptoms linked to exposure to one or more traumatic events. The forms of trauma that can lead to PTSD can include experiences such as military combat, sexual violence, physical assault, natural disasters, severe automobile accidents, sudden catastrophic medical events, and more. PTSD can come as a result of directly experiencing events such as these or from seeing them happen to others.

Those who grapple with PTSD are often burdened with recurrent, upsetting memories of the traumatic event itself, nightmares connected to the trauma, and dissociative reactions/flashbacks where they feel as though the event is happening all over again. Because of these and other involuntary symptoms, those with PTSD can begin to change their behaviors to avoid certain people, places, events, or experiences that are reminiscent of their traumatic event. They might also begin displaying changes in attitude, perceptions, and mood.

When an individual is already battling with a substance use disorder and develops PTSD, her experience can be exceptionally challenging. One of the ways in which individuals with PTSD attempt to protect themselves from the painful memories of their traumatic event is to abuse alcohol and/or drugs. When an individual has developed a substance use disorder, she is now dependent on the substance(s) of her choice, which can lead to significant disturbances in her ability to function. While being under the influence of substances can seemingly help negate the pain from memories, substance abuse will only exacerbate symptoms of PTSD and make efforts towards recovery nearly impossible.

Those individuals who grapple with a substance use disorder and co-occurring posttraumatic stress disorder require professional treatment. With the appropriate, effective care, individuals can be relieved of their symptoms, work through the issues that have added to the development of their disorders, and obtain healthy skills that will allow them to cope and yield long lasting recovery.

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Approximately 3.5% of Americans will experience PTSD in any 12-month period. The lifetime risk associated with the development of this disorder is 8.7%, and the rates of PTSD are much higher amongst women than men. The National Center for PTSD reports that roughly 10% of women will get PTSD during their lives, while only 4% of men will experience this disorder. Experts estimate that somewhere between 20% and 43% of adults living with PTSD also struggle with substance use disorders, compared to a substance abuse rate of 8% to 25% amongst the country’s population. For those combat veterans who struggle with PTSD, the rate of substance abuse is 75%.

Cause and Risk Factors for PTSD

The primary factor that must be present for posttraumatic stress disorder to develop is experiencing, witnessing, or learning about one traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. However, a bevy of additional elements can influence whether or not an individual’s response will cause her to develop PTSD:

Genetic: Studies show that specific genotypes may increase or decrease the odds of an individual developing PTSD based on a traumatic experience.

Environmental: Before the traumatic event occurs, environmental influences like low educational progress, poverty, childhood adversity, family history of mental illness, and more can increase an individual’s likelihood of developing PTSD. During and after the traumatic event, elements including the severity of the experience, additional adverse life events, subsequent exposure to reminders of the event, and the lack of strong social support can add to the development of PTSD.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being younger at the time of the traumatic event(s)
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Being a member of a minority racial or ethnic group
  • Experiencing interpersonal violence
  • Insufficient social support
  • Lower intelligence
  • Lower education level
  • Prior mental health issues
  • Poor coping skills

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

Depending on numerous factors, posttraumatic stress disorder may be recognizable through a variety of symptoms. Below are the most common signs and symptoms of PTSD:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Diminished participation in important activities
  • Avoiding certain events, situations, or people
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Reckless or otherwise self-destructive behaviors
  • Engaging in substance abuse
  • Fighting, destruction of property, and other acts of violence
  • Angry outbursts

Physical symptoms:

  • Hyperarousal
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Exaggerated startle response

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Derealization
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depersonalization
  • Recurrent distressing memories
  • Vivid and disturbing nightmares

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Persistent negative mood
  • Hypervigilance
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of PTSD

When posttraumatic stress disorder goes untreated, those who are affected by it can see negative impacts on all areas of their lives. Below are some of the most common negative effects linked to PTSD:

  • Suicide attempts
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Homelessness
  • Development of additional mental health disorders
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Diminished performance at work
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Family discord
  • Injury to self or others due to violence or recklessness
  • Inability to establish or maintain interpersonal relationships

Co-Occurring Disorders

Those who have PTSD are at an increased likelihood for developing symptoms that are commonly found amongst other mental health illnesses. The following are some of the most common co-occurring disorders that accompany PTSD:

  • Major neurocognitive disorder
  • Substance use disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
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