PTSD isn’t just for soldiers. Trauma can be experienced in everyday life, too.
Sooner or later, the universe sends everybody a curve ball—from car accidents to hurricanes, or from witnessing a shooting to encountering abuse. They’re all traumatic events, and about 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one event over the course of their lifetime. For women, it’s more likely to be sexual assault or child sexual abuse, while for men it may be an accident, physical assault, or combat.
When these events happen, it’s natural that you’ll be shaken up for a couple of days. You might have trouble sleeping or difficulty concentrating. Before long, though, it’s back to normal—for almost everyone.
Those symptoms don’t go away for 7% to 8% of people who experience trauma—some eight million Americans in any given year. If months go by and you’re still having flashbacks, bad dreams, or intrusive thoughts, or if you find yourself experiencing angry outbursts or feeling detached from people close to you, you might be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“PTSD isn’t just limited to war,” says Arianna Galligher, a licensed social worker and associate director of the Trauma Recovery Center at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “Trauma can come in many forms—it can be any event, circumstance, or set of circumstances that are physically or emotionally harmful and have lasting adverse effects on a person’s functioning or sense of well-being. It can impact anyone.”
LEARN MORE: 4 Things You Should Know About PTSD
Luckily, PTSD is treatable, and early intervention such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication can be effective. That’s why it would be helpful to be able to predict how likely it is that a person’s trauma will become PTSD.
Are You at Risk for PTSD?
Why do some people get PTSD and some don’t? It’s complicated. “A growing body of research indicates that genetic factors may make people vulnerable to PTSD,” explains Galligher. “And a person’s sex, IQ, prior trauma exposure, pre-existing mental disorders, and even personality factors play a role, too.”
Because PTSD can last for years, with sometimes devastating consequences, researchers have been looking into exactly what makes some people more prone to the condition. “Even environmental factors can increase your risk of PTSD,” says Galligher. “If you grew up with inconsistent caregivers, or poverty, or housing instability, that also increases [y]our vulnerability.” But there’s also a flip side, she says—there are factors that can help prevent PTSD, too. “Support from parents, friends, family, school, and community can serve as a foundation for developing resilience skills that protect against the development of PTSD.”
In an attempt to quantify who may or may not develop the condition, psychologists at New York University (NYU) compiled a list of more than 800 factors that seem to put people at a greater risk for developing PTSD. However, the list isn’t foolproof—everyone’s experience, and reaction, is different. But it does offer an attempt at a personalized guide to prediction.
Here are some of the top indicators that someone may develop PTSD:
1. What kind of injury did you suffer?
Some traumatic events are more physically devastating than others. Turns out that head injuries are one of the strongest predictors that PTSD might be in your future. “Head trauma may occur alongside a traumatic event,” says Galligher. “There’s some evidence that the presence of mild traumatic brain injury may increase a person’s vulnerability to PTSD.” If you’ve had a head injury, be sure to stay in touch with your doctor, and be aware of any developing PTSD symptoms.
2. How long did you stay in the emergency department?
Don’t count the time you spent sitting in the waiting room. Instead, think about how long you were treated by the doctors, nurses, and technicians. Turns out, the more time you spent being treated, the more likely you are to have had a serious injury and to eventually experience the symptoms of PTSD, such as reliving an event, avoiding situations that remind you of a traumatic event, or feeling jittery.
3. Have you sought help for PTSD symptoms?
If you’ve noticed symptoms that worried you enough to reach out for help, that’s a strong indicator that your injury may have resulted in PTSD. Seeking help is a good thing—so trust your gut. It may be telling you that there’s something serious going on. Be sure to share your concerns with your family doctor, your counselor, or a trusted friend. In the NYU study, nearly 90% of those who had repeatedly sought help actually developed PTSD.
4. How much pain are you in?
The traumatic event you experienced might have been a car accident or a physical attack. If that’s the case, you may be dealing with significant pain. Higher pain levels after a traumatic event are a strong indicator of developing PTSD.
5. What is your gender?
Anyone can get PTSD, but research shows that if you’re a woman, you have a 16% chance that your traumatic event will blossom into full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with a man’s chance of 9%.
6. Is PTSD in your genes?
Maybe. One recent study showed that PTSD symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks, as well as depression and irritability, were associated with genetic differences. There are also differences in how people respond to some common PTSD medications. This is a good reason to talk to your doctor about Genomind Professional PGx Express, which can help your doctor personalize your treatment options. Antidepressants are one of the first line of treatments for PTSD symptoms, and Genomind Professional PGx Express may help inform your provider about your response to these medications.
The takeaway: Keep an eye on your family and friends—and yourself—after a traumatic event. If severe symptoms continue for more than a month, it could be PTSD. If symptoms seem to get better more rapidly, it could still be a similar (but less serious) condition known as acute stress disorder. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to seek help.