Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

Published on

February 21, 2024

Updated on

February 16, 2024

Medically reviewed by

Ben Ahrens, HHP

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs after a traumatic or terrifying event. Many people will have difficulty coping after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, but with time and self-care, these difficulties improve. For others, the symptoms may worsen, interfere with day-to-day functioning, and can last for months or even years. If you can relate to these more persistent or challenging symptoms, you may have PTSD. Effective treatment focusing on the core of your PTSD symptoms can reduce the impact of PTSD on your daily life.

Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD may start within one month of a traumatic event or may not appear until years after the event. Symptoms can cause significant problems in social situations and relationships and interfere with your everyday daily tasks. PTSD symptoms are often grouped into four types[1]:

Intrusive memories

The symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurrent and unwanted memories.
  • Flashbacks or reliving the traumatic event.
  • Nightmares.
  • Severe emotional or physical reactions.


Symptoms of avoidance may include:

  • Trying to avoid thoughts about the traumatic event.
  • Avoidance of people, places, or activities that remind you of the traumatic event.

Adverse changes in thinking and mood

Symptoms of adverse changes in thinking and mood may include:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself or others.
  • Loss of memory surrounding the traumatic event.
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships or feeling detached from family and friends.
  • Lack of interest in activities and hobbies you once enjoyed.
  • Feeling emotionally distant or difficulty experiencing positive emotions.

Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions may include:

  • Feeling startled or frightened very easily.
  • Being on guard for danger at inappropriate times.
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking or drug use.
  • Sleep difficulties.
  • Angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Feelings of guilt or shame.

For children six years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include the following:

  • Re-enacting aspects of the traumatic event through play.
  • Frightening dreams.

The intensity of symptoms can vary from person to person and in intensity over time. You may have more PTSD symptoms when stressed or reminded of the traumatic event.

Causes and risk factors of PTSD

Causes of PTSD

You can develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as serious injury, death, or sexual assault. The exact cause of PTSD is not fully understood, but as with most mental health problems, it is likely a complex mix of[1]:

  • The amount and severity of trauma you’ve experienced throughout your life.
  • A family history of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
  • The way your brain regulates neurotransmitters and hormones in response to stress.

The Role of the Limbic System

The limbic system is the part of the brain that drives your primal fight or flight response. Under normal circumstances, the protective mechanisms of the limbic system would only become activated in times of appropriate danger or threat. However, if the limbic system becomes impaired due to various stressors, it can cause the “cross-wiring” of neuronal circuits in the brain. Chronic dysregulation in the limbic system, such as those seen in PTSD, can occur when chronic stress combines with an injury or another traumatic event[2].

Risk Factors for PTSD

People of all ages can develop PTSD; however, certain factors may increase your likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event, such as[1]:

  • Experiencing intense or long-lasting trauma. Especially when experienced earlier in life, such as childhood abuse.
  • Jobs with a risk of exposure to traumatic events, such as first responders and military personnel.
  • Having other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.
  • History of substance abuse.
  • Lacking a sound support system.

A few of the most common events leading to the development of PTSD include:

  • Combat exposure.
  • Childhood physical abuse.
  • Sexual violence.
  • Physical assault.
  • An accident.
  • Being threatened with a weapon, mugging, or robbery.
  • Fire or other natural disasters.

Diagnosing PTSD

PTSD symptoms continue for more than a month and cause significant problems in your daily life. The first step in diagnosing PTSD is to talk to your doctor, who will likely:

  • Perform a physical exam to check for any underlying medical conditions that could be causing your symptoms.
  • Do a psychological exam that includes discussing your symptoms and past traumatic events.

Common Treatment of PTSD

You don’t have to try to overcome the burden of PTSD alone. A well-rounded treatment and support system can help you regain control over your life and prevent unhealthy coping methods, such as alcohol or drug misuse.


Medications can be helpful for some people with PTSD. You can work with your doctor to determine the best prescription for your symptoms. A few of the types of medications that can help improve symptoms of PTSD include[1]:

  • Antidepressants such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil), can help with symptoms of depression and anxiety and may help improve problems with sleep or concentration.
  • Anti-anxiety medications can relieve severe anxiety.
  • Prazosin (Minipress). While some studies indicate that prazosin might reduce nightmares in some people with PTSD, a more recent study shows no benefit over a placebo. Speak with your doctor to see if prazosin could be right for you.


Several types of psychotherapy treat children and adults with PTSD. Types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you recognize negative ways of thinking. For PTSD, CBT is often used in combination with exposure therapy.
  • Exposure therapy is a behavioral therapy that helps you safely face situations and memories that you find frightening to learn to cope effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly beneficial for flashbacks and nightmares.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) combines exposure therapy with guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them.

What is re-origin?

re-origin is a science-based, self-directed neuroplasticity training program and supportive community designed to help people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal of re-origin is to educate and guide you through the concepts of neuroplasticity and how to retrain your brain to respond differently to adverse stimuli.

Components of the re-origin program

Understanding neuroplasticity. The training program includes interactive modules, specially designed worksheets, and self-assessment quizzes where you’ll learn:

  • How chronic conditions form
  • How to calm your racing mind and break anxiety loops
  • How to be more resilient to stress
  • How to transform your “threat response” to a “challenge response” and learn to stay calm and relaxed under pressure

Connecting with a Community. You’ll join a curated uplifting community with weekly group coaching calls, live Q&As and online events.

Group coaching or “Momentum Sessions” to inspire motivation & accountability through weekly “momentum group” coaching calls.

It is important to understand the content in re-origin is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for a medical diagnosis, treatment, or advice. Your doctor should always be involved in the management of any health conditions. Consult with your doctor prior to starting re-origin to discuss a plan for your overall health.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, a mental health professional can help. If you are having thoughts of suicide, a mental health professional can help. The American Society for Suicide Prevention provides direct services dedicated to crisis intervention. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Call or text 988 or text TALK to 741741.

call to action banner

A Final Word

No matter how long you’ve been living with PTSD, you can overcome your symptoms by addressing them at their core. With patience and repetition, the changes in your brain will start to reflect outwardly in reducing your PTSD symptoms. With the right tools, dedication, and patience, you can recover from PTSD and reclaim your life.


What is PTSD?
add icon

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that occurs after a traumatic or terrifying event.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?
add icon
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Severe anxiety
  • Frightening, intrusive thoughts
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, anger, or fear
  • Inability to feel positive emotions
  • Problems with concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Detachment from people and activities
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the event or triggers symptoms

What causes PTSD?
add icon

You can develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as serious injury, death, or sexual assault.

How is PTSD diagnosed?
add icon

PTSD symptoms continue for more than a month and cause significant problems in your daily life. The first step in diagnosing PTSD is to talk to your doctor, who will likely perform a physical and psychological exam.


Katie Rapkoch, CHPC