What causes PTSD?
Actually, this question has two answers. The first answer is that PTSD is caused by our own stress hormones. Stress hormones are toxic to nerve cells (neurons). When the level of stress hormones released into our body chemistry reaches a certain threshold, nerve cells are damaged. The result is that our nervous system becomes highly sensitive or numbed-out. So, PTSD is like an internal chemical burn to our nervous system.
The second answer is that any event causing the release of enough stress hormones to chemically burn our nerve cells will cause PTSD. These events include the threat to life and the integrity of our body such as combat, assault, and accidents. The damage is usually worse when there is intent by someone (or others) that intends to hurt us. This can include humiliation, rejection, abuse, abandonment, deceit, and betrayal. Other events may not be life threatening, but are still traumatic because they usually happen repeatedly, which makes it more difficult to recover. This can include repeated medical procedures (especially for children), difficult childbirth, and living with a debilitating or terminal medical condition.
Military service personnel may have had multiple exposures and long durations of exposure due to frequent patrols and multiple deployments. They, like emergency service personnel, such as firefighters, law enforcement, and EMT workers, are vulnerable to trauma from:
- Occupational exposure to violence
- Exposure to noxious agents
- Physical harm or injury
- Witnessing death and grotesque injuries
- Witnessing harm to another
- Witnessing or learning about violence to loved ones or those in one’s unit
- The perception of surviving an experience by chance when others lost their life or were severely injured
Individuals with a history of child abuse who experience a trauma as an adult are likely to experience worse symptoms. That’s because childhood trauma (especially abuse) typically has a profound impact on the child’s developing nervous system. As adults, they are more vulnerable to developing PTSD – even decades later. Like an injured knee joint, an injured nervous system is more vulnerable to re-injury. This is one reason why two people can experience the same threatening event (say a minor car accident), and one person has little or no harsh internal trauma sensations afterward while the other one has great difficulty with them.