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Risk Factors for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

People all over the world experience traumatic events every day, and while most people bounce back, others develop PTSD.

People all over the world experience traumatic events every day, and while most people bounce back, others develop PTSD.

Who Gets PTSD?

Every day, people all over the world are exposed to traumatic events such as wars, physical assaults, natural disasters, and the sudden death of their loved ones. But it is difficult to predict who will develop PTSD, for while traumatic events can result in long-lasting, intense emotional responses in some people, others will bounce back quickly with no long-term effects.

A nationwide survey by the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS) indicates that while 56 percent of Americans experience a lifetime trauma, only eight percent develop PTSD. Despite the fact that only a small percentage of trauma victims manifest PTSD, the disorder still deserves attention.

Awareness of PTSD is necessary because of its overall prevalence, as well as the deeply debilitating impact the symptoms have on those who suffer from this condition. Furthermore, an understanding of the risk factors associated with developing PTSD could aid in finding strategies to prevent the disorder from emerging in the first place.

Risks of Developing PTSD

A number of categories of trauma victims could develop PTSD. These include survivors of domestic violence, rape, and physical assault. Survivors of car accidents, natural disasters, terrorist and attacks, as well as children who are neglected, or abused physically and sexually abused, could also develop PTSD.

Veterans who were in active combat and civilian victims of war are yet another group of trauma victims who are at risk of developing PTSD. Of course, everyday people also experience trauma after the sudden unexpected death of loved ones, or are diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, and are also vulnerable to PTSD.

Although all of these groups face different types and degrees of trauma, not all trauma survivors develop PTSD. So what are the factors that increase the risk of developing PTSD? It seems that there are certain biological, psychological, social, and other risk factors that can increase people’s vulnerability to PTSD.

In the book Risk Factors for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, experts examine the latest research on trauma which gives useful insights on how to identify individuals early after a traumatic experience.

Biological Factors of PTSD

There are indications that there is a genetic factor to PTSD, that is, vulnerability to PTSD could be passed on through generations. However, when a traumatic event occurs, it is likely to be worsened by behaviors such as drug abuse. Further, families with a history of anxiety also suggest a generalized biological vulnerability to PTSD.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays an important role in learning and memory. Evidence of damage to the hippocampus has appeared in groups of patients with war-related PTSD, and adult survivors of child sexual abuse (Durand & Barlow, 2006). This could result in disruptions in memory functions, including short-term memory, and recalling events—like the experience of veterans from the Gulf War and Holocaust survivors. However, the good news is that evidence suggests that the damage to the hippocampus may be reversible.

Combat veterans of war are at risk of PTSD.

Combat veterans of war are at risk of PTSD.

Some Key Points on PTSD

  • Many people experience trauma every day.
  • It is not possible to predict who will develop PTSD.
  • Studies show that there are a number of risk factors for PTSD in people who have experienced trauma.
  • One study indicates that there are childhood factors associated with an increased risk of developing PTSD.
  • Survivors of domestic violence, rape, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks are some of the victims who could develop PTSD.

Psychological Factors

Recent life stressors, including job loss and financial problems, could leave people vulnerable to PTSD by weakening their defense against any trauma they might face.

Certain personality traits such as pessimism and introversion also reduce the skills people need to deal with the challenges of traumatic events. This is in contrast to people who are optimistic and have positive expectancy for the future.

Poor coping skills resulting from issues such as low self-esteem could be a risk factor for PTSD. Self-esteem is the picture a person has of himself, and how well he or she likes the picture. People who have low self-esteem are more likely to feel inadequate and worthless, and this makes them vulnerable in cases of traumatic events in their lives.

Issues such as emotionality could increase a person’s chance of developing PTSD. In such cases, they may lack self-awareness and self-regulation. People who are self-aware know how they feel, and recognize how their own emotions can affect their own thoughts and behaviors. Furthermore, self-regulated individuals can control their emotions and actions, and so they are able to adapt positively to changing circumstances.

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Social Factors

Studies indicate that people who have a strong support network are less likely to develop PTSD after a trauma. Trauma victims need a sense of belonging and a caring group around them which could affect their biological and psychological responses to stress. For example, according to Durand and Barlow (2006), the high prevalence of PTSD in Vietnam veterans could be attributed to the absence of social support for the group when they returned home.

Support from family, friends, and the community is a critical protective factor for PTSD. In cases where victims are blamed, this could be devastating to their well-being. For example, when rape victims are shamed, or others refuse to believe that the event took place, this could cause them to become overwhelmed with the negative situations.

Social support is also a key ingredient to post-disaster recovery. This facilitates well-being and limits psychological distress following mass trauma. When there is social connectedness, this provides opportunities for activities including practical problem-solving, sharing experiences, and instructions about coping.

Possible Risk Factors for PTSD


Genetic factor - passed on through generations

Pessimistic personality trait; being withdrawn and inhibited

No or limited sense of belonging and connectedness

Damage to the hippocampus (a part of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory)

Low self-esteem resulting in poor coping skills

Weak social support; societal attitudes towards the events




Factors Around the Traumatic Event

The degree of severity of exposure to the trauma is also a factor associated with the risk of developing PTSD. The more extreme and prolonged the threat, the greater likelihood of developing PTSD.

There is also an indication that injury and threats to life are most likely to result in psychological impairment. Also, intentional human-inflicted harm such as rape, assault, and torture, tend to be more traumatic than distress from natural disasters. For example, the National Women’s Study reported that almost a third of all rape victims develop PTSD at some point during their lives.

Severe natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, could adversely impact the mental health of survivors.

Severe natural disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, could adversely impact the mental health of survivors.

Understanding PTSD Risk Factors

There are a number of factors that could increase the risk of developing PTSD. Most people who are directly affected by disaster and other traumatic events recover and move on with their lives.

Other people develop psychological disorders, such as PTSD, that results in symptoms such as flashbacks, disturbing dreams associated with the traumatic event, avoidance, and inability to recall important details of the trauma.

References and Further Reading

Appalachian State University (2005). PTSD: Risk factors. Accessed May 9, 2013.

Durand, V. M. & Barlow, D. H. (2006). Essentials of abnormal psychology (4th Ed.) Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

EurekAlert! (2013). PTSD research: distinct gene activity patterns from childhood abuse. Accessed May 9, 2013. (2012). Emotional intelligence: Developing strong “people skills.” Accessed May 8, 2013.

National Center for PTSD (2011). Sexual assault against women. Accessed May 5, 2013.

National Center for PTSD (2011). Mental health effects following disaster: Risk and resilience factors. Accessed April 26, 2013.

Psychological Medicine (2007). Early childhood factors associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder:results from a longitudinal birth cohort. Accessed August 1, 2015.

Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2013). Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accessed May 3, 2013

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Yvette Stupart PhD

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