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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When you are afraid, your body activates the "fight or flight" response -- a reference to our caveman ancestors facing a tiger. In reaction, your body releases adrenaline, which is responsible for increasing blood pressure and heart rate and increasing glucose to muscles (to allow you to run away quickly in the face of immediate danger). However, once the immediate danger (which may or may not have actually existed) is gone, the body begins a process of shutting down the stress response, and this process involves the release of another hormone known as cortisol.

If your body does not generate enough cortisol to shut down the flight or stress reaction, you may continue to feel the stress effects of the adrenaline. Trauma victims who develop post-traumatic stress disorder often have higher levels of other stimulating hormones (catecholamines) under normal conditions in which the threat of trauma is not present. These same hormones kick in when they are reminded of their trauma.

Physically, your body also increases your heart rate. After a month in this heightened state, with stress hormones elevated, you may develop further physical changes, such as heightened hearing. This cascade of physical changes, one triggering another, suggests that early intervention may be the key to heading off the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Although terrorism may cause the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people directly involved, most people are resilient and won’t have serious lingering effects. They will have memories, certainly, but will go on to live their lives without debilitating fear.

No one knows who will develop long-term effects. Seek medical care if you suspect you or someone you know has after-effects that just aren’t going away a few weeks after a traumatic event. These are the behaviors to watch for in loved ones, coworkers, friends, and family.

The main symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks, emotional detachment, and jumpiness.

  • Flashbacks: Imagine experiencing the most terrifying horror movie you’ve ever seen playing over and over in your mind. You can’t make the images go away. These are the flashbacks so commonly associated with PTSD and usually are thought of in connection with combat veterans in war.

    • Survivors of 9/11, for example, may keep seeing the plane hitting the building, hearing the sound of the crash, or reliving their desperate escape, and these images may occur either while the person is asleep (nightmares) or awake.
    • Flashbacks take the person out of reality. They are truly living the experience over again. Holocaust survivors are one example of a group of people with a common horrifying experience. Many of them experienced flashbacks of wartime Berlin and being herded to concentration camps when they heard the sound of police-car sirens more than 30 years later. 
       
  • Emotional detachment: Emotional detachment is a second symptom of PTSD, which is often not as obvious outwardly to anyone other than the person experiencing it. For these people, their emotional systems are in overdrive. They have a hard time being a loving family member. They avoid activities, places, and people associated with the traumatic event. They are simply drained emotionally and have trouble functioning every day.

    • A parent who is emotionally detached, or numb, might be unable to cope with raising children.
    • The children, in turn, may develop poor social relationships, as was seen with some children of Holocaust survivors. They can’t form loving bonds. This is the second generation of fallout from PTSD on a mass scale.

  • Jumpiness: Any sudden noise might startle you, but for someone with PTSD, that noise would make them practically "jump out of their skin" (known as hyperactive startle reflex). These people might overreact to small things and have difficulty concentrating, which would affect their job performance. They may always be looking around as if searching their environment for danger (this is hypervigilance). Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep in this high state of arousal is also a common consequence.

 

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