What Causes PTSD?
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Many people only associate PTSD with combat-related trauma. Certainly, PTSD affects those who were exposed to trauma at a disproportionately higher rate than the general population, however, exposure to virtually any traumatic event may trigger PTSD.

While PTSD is highly prevalent among veterans who served in military combat, the condition also affects victims of trauma and abuse (in alarming numbers). An estimated 10.4% percent of women in the U.S. and 5% of men will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

In one study, University of California researchers looked at predictors of PTSD among adults, comparing men and women. Their findings may surprise you.  

Risk Rates for Men

For men, the traumatic event most likely to cause PTSD is rape. 65 percent of men in the study (of 5,877 men and women across the U.S.) who reported having been raped developed clinically diagnosed PTSD.  

The other highest risk traumatic events for men include:

  • Combat (38.8%)

  • Childhood neglect (23.9%)

  • Childhood physical abuse (22.3%)

  • Sexual abuse (12.2%)

Risk Rates for Women

Researchers found an overlap between men and women in the study. Both men and women who had experienced rape were the most likely to develop PTSD. 45.9% of women reported a rape as the most upsetting traumatic event they had experienced went on to develop PTSD.

The other highest risk traumatic events for women include:

  • Threatened with a weapon (32.6%)

  • Sexual abuse (26.5%)

  • Physical attack (21.3%)

  • Childhood physical abuse (48.5%)

  • Childhood neglect (19.7%)

Consistent with the University of California study, according to the National Center for PTSD, the most common types of trauma (with distinguishing between men and women) associated with PTSD are as follows:

  • Combat

  • Physical and sexual abuse or assault

  • Sexual or physical abuse during childhood or adolescence  

  • Learning about the violent or accidental death or severe injury of a family member or loved one  

  • Serious accidents (e.g. car crash)  

  • Terror attacks

  • Natural disasters

  • Exposure to other terrifying and life-threatening events

After an individual experiences one of these events, it’s quite common to respond with fear, horror, and helplessness. But, even learning about death or serious injury of a family member, loved one or close friend, can cause an individual to develop PTSD.

What’s interesting about PTSD is the role of memory and fear conditioning in the pathology. A significant amount of research has emerged over the years that demonstrates how quite possibly a disproportionate amount of an individual’s processing resources become dedicated to detecting potential threats and, in fact, interpreting stimuli (that should be perceived as completely neutral) as threatening.

How does this affect people? Often a sufferer's attention shifts away from normal cognitive (or brain) functioning. They may experience attention and memory deficits or high levels of anxiety and stress. Anxiety and stress are normal adaptive response in humans, but in those with PTSD the symptoms are more often than not, maladaptive responses. And, in fact, these symptoms can cause debilitating effects on physical and emotional health.


  • Ozer, E.J., Best, S.R., Lipsey, T.L., & Weiss, D.S. (2003). Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 52-73.
  • National Center for PTSD


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