Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What Factors Increase Your Risk of Developing PTSD?

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What are the risk factors for developing PTSD after a traumatic event?. martin-dm / Getty Images

What Leads to the Development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

We don't know exactly what causes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but we to know of a number of factors that increase the risk of developing PTSD. In fact, the risk factors that lead PTSD to develop are quite common.

Many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. However, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will eventually go on to develop PTSD.

So, how can we know which people are more likely to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event? Researchers have attempted to answer that question.

What Research Says About Risk Factors for PTSD

Researchers have been working hard on this question as it is an important one to answer. If health care providers know which people might be more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event, steps can be taken to treat the individual before the PTSD develops. These steps are called "prevention efforts" because they act to prevent or stop the development of PTSD and all that goes along with it such as relationship problems or substance abuse.

Researchers have done numerous studies to identify certain characteristics of people or traumatic events that influence who does and does not eventually develop PTSD. 

Potential Risk Factors for PTSD

In a review of studies of PTSD, several risk factors were identified that have consistently been found to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event.

  • Individuals who've already experienced one traumatic event are likely to develop PTSD, as are people who had psychological difficulties before the traumatic event (especially depression or bipolar disorder) or a family history of psychological problems.
  • Individuals who have a medical condition such as heart disease, chronic pain, or cancer are more likely to develop PTSD in response to a traumatic event. (Heart disease or cancer may also be the traumatic event which leads to the development of PTSD.)
  • The event itself plays a role. For example, if the traumatic event put the person's life in danger, it may be more likely to cause PTSD down the road than an event which was not life-threatening.
  • The emotional support people receive after a traumatic event also plays a role. People who do not receive support from others may be more likely to develop PTSD after a trauma. 
  • Women are more likely to develop PTSD in response to a traumatic event, and this may be at least partially explained by hormonal changes.
  • PTSD more commonly develops in those who are older, have less education, and are in a lower income bracket than for those who are younger or have higher incomes.
  • The person's emotional response during the traumatic event is also a factor. For example, did the person feel fear, helplessness, horror, guilt or shame? Alternatively, did they experience dissociation during the traumatic event? Dissociation is a particular type of response to a stressful experience in which individuals may actually feel separated or cut-off from themselves or their surroundings. When in a "dissociative state," people may feel numb, lose track of time or feel as though they are floating outside of their bodies. In some cases, they may have no memories about the event at all.

    Which Risk Factors for PTSD Are the Most Concerning?

    All of the above factors were found to increase the likelihood of a person developing PTSD after a traumatic event. However, dissociation at the time of the traumatic event stood out as the strongest predictor of who developed PTSD.

    Why might this be the case? Dissociation at the time of a traumatic event means that a person was not connected with what was happening. This may limit the extent to which a person can fully process his emotions about a traumatic event, and therefore, his ability to cope with the event.

    The weakest risk factors for developing PTSD were a family history of psychological problems, the experience of another traumatic event and the experience of psychological difficulties before the traumatic event.

    In Closing

    This research provides some insight into which people may be at greatest risk of developing PTSD following a traumatic event. Of course, more research is needed, as there are likely other important factors that the researchers did not review.

    If you have any of the risk factors discussed above, you may be more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. However, it is important to remember that just because you have experienced another traumatic event or come from a family with psychological problems doesn't mean you will develop PTSD. It just means that you are more vulnerable to developing the disorder.

    Seeking help (whether in the form of social support from loved ones or psychotherapy from a mental health professional) soon after experiencing a traumatic event may "defuse" these risk factors, preventing the development of PTSD. Here are a few tips on how to find a good PTSD therapist.

    Keep in mind that even if you develop PTSD, there are treatments available which can make a tremendous difference in your quality of life.

    Sources:

    Boudoukha, A., Ouagazzal, O., and N. Goutaudier. When Traumatic Event Exposure Characteristics Matter: Impact of Traumatic Event Exposure Characteristics on Posttraumatic and Dissociative Symptoms. Psychological Trauma. 2016 Dec 8. (Epub ahead of print).

    Briscione, M., Michopoulos, V., Jovanovic, T., and S. Norrholm. Neuroendocrine Underpinnings of Increased Risk for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women. Vitamins and Hormones. 2017. 103:53-83.

    Chang, J., Yen, A., Chen, H. et al. Comorbid Diseases as Risk Factors for Incident Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in a Large Community Cohort (KCIS no.PSY4). Science Reports. 2017. 7:41276.

    Pejuskovic, B., Lecic-Tosevski, D., and O. Toskovic. Longitudinal Study of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the Community: Risk and Recovery Factors. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. 2017. 205(2):77-82.

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