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PTSD: What You Need to Know

Clinically Reviewed by: Charee Marquez, LMFT

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD can vary widely among individuals but often include intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. People with PTSD may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear, or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. Understanding PTSD is crucial because it affects not just the individuals who have it but also their families, friends, and communities. It is a condition that can disrupt lives if not properly managed, making awareness and treatment essential.

What Causes PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop following exposure to a traumatic event or series of events that are threatening to life or physical integrity. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, several factors can contribute to the development of the disorder. Here are some common causes and risk factors associated with PTSD:

  1. Traumatic Events: PTSD typically arises from exposure to traumatic events that involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Common traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

    • Combat exposure
    • Physical or sexual assault
    • Natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes)
    • Car accidents
    • Terrorist attacks
    • Witnessing or experiencing violence
  2. Personal Vulnerability: Certain individual factors may increase the risk of developing PTSD following a traumatic event. These factors include:

    • Previous traumatic experiences or childhood adversity
    • Family history of mental health disorders, including PTSD
    • Genetic predisposition to stress response and anxiety disorders
    • Pre-existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
    • Lack of social support or coping resources
  3. Severity and Duration of Trauma: The severity, duration, and proximity of exposure to trauma can influence the likelihood of developing PTSD. Individuals who experience repeated or prolonged trauma, particularly in childhood, may be at increased risk for developing the disorder.

  4. Perceived Threat: The subjective experience of the traumatic event and the perceived level of threat or danger can impact the development of PTSD. Events that are perceived as more severe, uncontrollable, or life-threatening are more likely to result in PTSD symptoms.

  5. Biological Factors: Biological factors, such as alterations in brain chemistry, neurotransmitter systems, and the stress response system, may contribute to the development of PTSD. Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and abnormalities in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are implicated in the development and maintenance of PTSD symptoms.

  6. Psychological Factors: Psychological factors, including cognitive biases, negative beliefs about oneself or the world, and maladaptive coping strategies, can influence vulnerability to PTSD. Individuals who engage in avoidant coping strategies, rumination, or self-blame may be at increased risk for developing PTSD.

  7. Social Support: Social support networks, including family, friends, and community resources, play a crucial role in mitigating the impact of trauma and facilitating recovery from PTSD. Lack of social support or perceived social isolation can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and increase the risk of chronicity.

  8. Stigmatization and Secondary Victimization: Negative social reactions, stigma, and victim-blaming attitudes following a traumatic event can exacerbate feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation, contributing to the development and maintenance of PTSD symptoms.

It’s important to recognize that PTSD is a complex and multifaceted disorder influenced by various factors, and not everyone who experiences trauma will develop the disorder.

Is PTSD Hereditary?

The question of whether PTSD is hereditary involves understanding the complex interplay between genetics and environmental factors. While PTSD itself is not directly inherited, certain genetic factors may make an individual more susceptible to developing PTSD following exposure to trauma. Research indicates that genetics can contribute to about 30% of the variance in PTSD risk. This suggests that while PTSD is not hereditary in the traditional sense, there is a genetic predisposition that can make some individuals more likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic event than others. However, environmental factors, personal experiences, and individual coping mechanisms play a significant role in whether a person will develop PTSD.

Types of PTSD

Understanding the types of PTSD is crucial for effective treatment and support. PTSD can manifest in various forms, including:

  • Uncomplicated PTSD: Relates to a single, isolated traumatic event and is the most straightforward form to treat.
  • Complex PTSD: Results from exposure to prolonged traumatic circumstances, such as abuse or domestic violence, and is characterized by more severe symptoms, such as difficulties in emotional regulation, consciousness, and self-perception.
  • Comorbid PTSD: Occurs alongside other mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse, complicating the treatment process.
  • Normal Stress Response: Though not a type of PTSD, it’s essential to differentiate normal stress responses from PTSD to prevent overdiagnosis and ensure appropriate treatment for those who truly need it.

Effects of PTSD

The effects of PTSD can permeate every aspect of an individual’s life, leading to significant personal, social, and economic impact.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have a profound impact on various aspects of an individual’s life, including their mental and physical health, relationships, work or school performance, and overall quality of life. Here are some common effects of PTSD:

  1. Re-Experiencing Symptoms: Individuals with PTSD often experience intrusive and distressing memories, flashbacks, or nightmares related to the traumatic event. These symptoms can be triggered by reminders of the trauma and may lead to intense emotional or physical reactions.

  2. Avoidance: People with PTSD may avoid situations, places, activities, or people that remind them of the traumatic event. This avoidance can interfere with daily functioning and lead to social withdrawal, isolation, and difficulties in relationships.

  3. Hyperarousal: Individuals with PTSD may feel constantly on edge, irritable, or easily startled. They may have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or relaxing, and may be hypervigilant for potential threats.

  4. Negative Changes in Mood and Cognition: PTSD can cause persistent negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world. It may also lead to distorted thoughts or feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame. Individuals may experience diminished interest in activities they once enjoyed and may feel emotionally numb or detached from others.

  5. Physical Symptoms: PTSD can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain, or cardiovascular issues. These physical symptoms may be exacerbated by the stress and anxiety associated with the disorder.

  6. Emotional Distress: PTSD often causes significant emotional distress, including feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, anger, or sadness. Individuals may struggle with mood swings, emotional instability, or difficulty regulating their emotions.

  7. Impaired Functioning: PTSD can impair various aspects of functioning, including work or school performance, social relationships, and daily activities. Individuals may have difficulty maintaining employment, fulfilling family responsibilities, or engaging in social interactions.

  8. Substance Abuse and Self-Destructive Behaviors: Some individuals with PTSD may turn to alcohol, drugs, or other harmful coping mechanisms to numb their emotional pain or alleviate their symptoms. Substance abuse and self-destructive behaviors can exacerbate the effects of PTSD and lead to additional complications.

  9. Relationship Problems: PTSD can strain relationships with family members, friends, romantic partners, or colleagues. Individuals may have difficulty communicating their experiences, expressing emotions, or trusting others, which can contribute to conflicts and misunderstandings.

  10. Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors: In severe cases, PTSD may be associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or self-harm. It’s essential for individuals experiencing suicidal ideation to seek immediate help from mental health professionals or crisis intervention services.

These effects of PTSD can vary in severity and duration, and not everyone with PTSD will experience all of these symptoms. Treatment, support, and coping strategies can help individuals manage their symptoms, improve their quality of life, and achieve recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD, it’s important to seek help from qualified mental health professionals.

Risks of PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can pose various risks to an individual’s mental and physical health, as well as their overall well-being. Here are some common risks associated with PTSD:

  1. Mental Health Challenges: PTSD can significantly impact mental health, leading to symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. These conditions can exacerbate PTSD symptoms and contribute to emotional distress, impaired functioning, and reduced quality of life.

  2. Substance Abuse: Individuals with PTSD are at higher risk of developing substance use disorders, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, as they may turn to substances as a way to cope with their symptoms and numb emotional pain. Substance abuse can further complicate treatment and increase the risk of other health problems.

  3. Physical Health Issues: PTSD is associated with various physical health problems, including chronic pain, cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal problems, and autoimmune disorders. The chronic stress and hyperarousal associated with PTSD can weaken the immune system and contribute to the development or exacerbation of physical health conditions.

  4. Relationship Difficulties: PTSD can strain relationships with family members, friends, romantic partners, and colleagues. Individuals with PTSD may have difficulty expressing their emotions, trusting others, and maintaining healthy boundaries, leading to conflicts, misunderstandings, and social isolation.

  5. Work and School Impairment: PTSD symptoms, such as intrusive memories, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing, can interfere with work or school performance. Individuals may struggle to concentrate, make decisions, meet deadlines, or interact with others, which can lead to job loss, academic difficulties, or financial problems.

  6. Risk of Re-Traumatization: Individuals with PTSD may be at risk of re-experiencing trauma or being re-traumatized by triggering events, situations, or reminders of the traumatic event. This can further exacerbate PTSD symptoms and increase emotional distress.

  7. Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors: PTSD is associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and self-harm. Severe emotional pain, feelings of hopelessness, and a sense of isolation can contribute to suicidal ideation and behavior. It’s essential for individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek help from mental health professionals or crisis intervention services.

  8. Impact on Parenting and Family Dynamics: PTSD can affect parenting abilities and family dynamics, leading to challenges in providing emotional support, setting boundaries, and maintaining stable relationships with children and other family members. Children of parents with PTSD may also be at increased risk of developing mental health problems.

  9. Reduced Quality of Life: PTSD can significantly diminish an individual’s quality of life by impairing their ability to function in various areas of life, including work, relationships, and leisure activities. Persistent symptoms, emotional distress, and social withdrawal can contribute to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and dissatisfaction with life.

  10. Limited Access to Care: Despite the availability of effective treatments for PTSD, some individuals may face barriers to accessing care, such as financial constraints, lack of awareness about available resources, stigma surrounding mental health treatment, or limited access to mental health services in their communities.

It’s important for individuals with PTSD to seek help from qualified mental health professionals to address their symptoms, reduce risks, and improve their overall well-being. With appropriate treatment, support, and coping strategies, individuals with PTSD can manage their symptoms, enhance their resilience, and achieve recovery.

PTSD Prevalence

PTSD is a condition that affects people worldwide, transcending age, race, and socioeconomic status. Its prevalence can vary significantly depending on the population and context. For instance, it is more common among veterans and individuals who have been exposed to war zones, with rates as high as 20% reported in some veteran groups. Among the general population, the prevalence is lower but still significant, with estimates suggesting that approximately 8% of adults will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. These statistics underscore the importance of recognizing PTSD as a widespread and serious public health issue, necessitating accessible and effective treatment options for all affected individuals.

How Is PTSD Diagnosed?

Diagnosing PTSD involves a comprehensive evaluation by a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. The diagnosis is based on criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which includes:

Exposure to a traumatic event through direct experience, witnessing, or learning it happened to a close family member or friend.

  • Presence of one or more re-experiencing symptoms.
  • Presence of one or more avoidance symptoms.
  • Presence of two or more negative changes in thoughts and mood.
  • Presence of two or more hyperarousal symptoms.

The symptoms must last for more than a month and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The evaluation may include detailed interviews, psychological assessments, and sometimes physical examinations to rule out other causes for the symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD symptoms can vary in intensity over time and can be triggered by reminders of the traumatic event. These symptoms are categorized into four main types:

Re-experiencing Symptoms:

  • Flashbacks: Reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating.
  • Nightmares: Frequent, vivid, and distressing dreams related to the event.
  • Frightening thoughts: Uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts of the trauma.

Avoidance Symptoms:

  • Steering clear of places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience.
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event.

Negative Changes in Thinking and Mood:

  • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others.
  • Persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame).
  • Inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic event.
  • Decreased interest in once enjoyable activities.
  • Persistent inability to experience positive emotions (e.g., inability to experience happiness, satisfaction, or loving feelings).

Hyperarousal Symptoms:

  • Being easily startled.
  • Feeling tense or “on edge.”
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Angry outbursts or aggressive behavior.
  • Hyper-vigilance for danger.

Understanding these symptoms is crucial for recognizing PTSD in oneself or others and seeking or offering appropriate support and treatment. Early intervention can significantly impact the effectiveness of treatment and the overall recovery process.

How Do You Help a Loved One with PTSD?

Supporting a loved one with PTSD requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen without judgment. Here are practical ways to offer help:

  • Educate Yourself: Learn about PTSD to understand what your loved one is experiencing.
  • Be Patient: Recovery takes time, so be patient with your progress and understand that healing is not linear.
  • Listen: Offer a listening ear without forcing them to talk about their trauma before they’re ready.
  • Encourage Professional Help: Gently encourage them to seek professional treatment and, if they’re open to it, help them find appropriate services.
  • Offer Practical Support: Assist with daily tasks or accompany them to appointments if they need support.
  • Maintain a Healthy Environment: Create a safe and stress-free environment that reduces triggers.
  • Encourage Positive Lifestyle Changes: Promote activities that can help reduce stress, such as exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep.
  • Set Boundaries: For your well-being and theirs, establish boundaries and seek support for yourself if needed.

PTSD Treatment Options

Treatment for PTSD typically involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Effective treatments include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Helps patients understand and change how they think about their trauma and its aftermath.
  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy: Involves gradually exposing patients to trauma reminders to help them process and reduce their fear.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Uses eye movements to help process traumatic memories and change how they are stored in the brain.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): Helps patients learn how to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma.
  • Group Therapy: Offers a space to share experiences and coping strategies with others who have had similar experiences.

Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment Options for PTSD

Inpatient Treatment provides a controlled environment for severe PTSD cases, offering 24-hour care and support, including medication management, therapy, and activities designed to help individuals cope with trauma.

Outpatient Treatment allows individuals to live at home while receiving therapy and treatment through scheduled appointments. This can include individual therapy, group therapy, and medication management. Outpatient treatment is often suited for those with less severe PTSD or as a step down from inpatient care.

Common Prescription Medications for PTSD

Several types of medications can be effective in treating PTSD, including:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Such as sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil), are commonly prescribed for PTSD to help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs): Such as venlafaxine (Effexor), may also be used to treat PTSD.
  • Prazosin: Often used to treat nightmares associated with PTSD.
  • Mood Stabilizers and Atypical Antipsychotics: These may be used in certain cases to address specific symptoms or when someone does not respond to other treatments.

Dosage Guidelines for PTSD Prescription Medication

The dosage of PTSD medications varies based on the individual’s needs, the specific medication prescribed, and its form (such as tablet, capsule, or liquid). Starting doses are typically low to minimize side effects, with gradual increases until the therapeutic dose is reached. Individuals must follow their healthcare provider’s instructions closely and communicate about any side effects experienced, as adjustments may be necessary.

Does Insurance Cover PTSD Treatment?

Yes, insurance often covers treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but coverage can vary depending on your specific insurance plan, provider network, and policy details. Here are some considerations regarding insurance coverage for PTSD treatment:

  1. Insurance Plan Coverage: Many private health insurance plans, employer-sponsored plans, Medicaid, and Medicare offer coverage for mental health services, including treatment for PTSD. However, coverage levels and requirements may vary between plans.

  2. Network Providers: Insurance plans typically have networks of healthcare providers, including mental health professionals who specialize in treating PTSD. To maximize coverage and minimize out-of-pocket costs, it’s important to ensure that the providers you choose are in-network with your insurance plan.

  3. Coverage Details: Review your insurance plan documents, such as the Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC), to understand the specific coverage for PTSD treatment. Pay attention to factors such as copayments, coinsurance, deductibles, and any limitations or exclusions that may apply.

  4. Types of Treatment Covered: Insurance plans may cover various types of treatment for PTSD, including psychotherapy (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy), medication management, and other evidence-based interventions. Some plans may also cover complementary and alternative treatments, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy or mindfulness-based interventions.

  5. Medical Necessity: Insurance coverage for PTSD treatment is often based on medical necessity. This means that the treatment must be deemed medically necessary by the insurance company and meet certain criteria for coverage. Your healthcare provider may need to provide documentation to support the medical necessity of the treatment.

  6. Authorization Requirements: Some insurance plans may require preauthorization or prior approval for PTSD treatment, particularly for certain types of therapy or medications. This means that you may need to obtain approval from your insurance company before starting treatment to ensure coverage.

  7. Cost-sharing: While insurance may cover a portion of the PTSD treatment costs, there may still be out-of-pocket expenses for you to pay, such as copayments, coinsurance, or deductibles. Understanding your plan’s cost-sharing requirements can help you anticipate and budget for these expenses.

  8. Out-of-Network Coverage: If you choose to see a provider who is out-of-network with your insurance plan, coverage may still be available, but at a lower rate. Out-of-network care typically results in higher out-of-pocket costs for you, so it’s important to consider whether the benefits of accessing an out-of-network provider outweigh the additional expenses.

It’s essential to contact your insurance provider directly or review your plan documents to understand the specific coverage for PTSD treatment and any requirements or considerations that may apply. Additionally, the mental health professionals you choose to work with can also assist you in navigating insurance coverage and accessing the appropriate treatment for your needs.

Common Types of Insurance Plans Used for PTSD Treatment

Various types of health insurance plans can be used for mental health treatment, including the following commonly used plan types:

  1. Preferred Provider Organization (PPO):

    • PPO plans offer flexibility in choosing healthcare providers, including mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists.
    • Individuals with PPO plans can typically visit both in-network and out-of-network providers without needing a referral from a primary care physician.
    • PPO plans often have higher premiums and more cost-sharing (e.g., copayments, coinsurance) compared to other plan types, but they provide greater flexibility in provider choice.
  2. Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO):

    • EPO plans require individuals to seek care from a network of providers, including mental health professionals.
    • Unlike PPO plans, EPO plans do not typically cover out-of-network care, except in emergencies.
    • EPO plans may have lower premiums and cost-sharing compared to PPO plans but offer less flexibility in provider choice.
  3. Health Maintenance Organization (HMO):

    • HMO plans typically have a primary care physician (PCP) who coordinates all aspects of the individual’s healthcare, including referrals to mental health specialists.
    • Individuals with HMO plans may need a referral from their PCP to see a mental health professional within the plan’s network.
    • HMO plans often have lower premiums and cost-sharing compared to PPO plans but require individuals to use network providers and obtain referrals for specialist care.
  4. Point of Service (POS):

    • POS plans combine elements of both HMO and PPO plans, allowing individuals to choose between in-network and out-of-network providers.
    • Like HMO plans, individuals with POS plans may need a referral from their PCP to see a mental health specialist within the plan’s network.
    • POS plans typically have higher premiums and cost-sharing compared to HMO plans but offer more flexibility in provider choice, including out-of-network coverage.

Each of these plan types has its own features, benefits, provider networks, and cost-sharing arrangements. When seeking mental health treatment, individuals should consider their specific healthcare needs, budget, and preferences to choose the plan that best meets their requirements. Additionally, understanding the details of mental health coverage under each plan type can help individuals make informed decisions about accessing the care they need while minimizing out-of-pocket costs.

Seeking Treatment? We Can Help!

At California Prime Recovery, as an in-network provider, we work with most insurance plans, such as:

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges or substance abuse, reach out to California Prime Recovery today. Our team of compassionate professionals is here to support your journey towards lasting well-being. Give us a call at 866-208-2390. Also, check out our blogs posted weekly on Medium.


The first signs can vary but often include re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares.

While PTSD is a complex condition, effective treatments can significantly reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

PTSD can interfere with daily activities, relationships, and work, making it challenging to function normally.

Avoid minimizing their feelings or pressuring them to move on from the trauma. It’s crucial to offer support and understanding.

Encourage them to seek professional help, be there to listen without judgment, and educate yourself about PTSD to understand what they’re going through.

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