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Risk Factors for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
by Amy Scholten, MPH
A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease or condition.
Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop PTSD. Symptoms of PTSD are more likely to occur if a person has the following risk factors:
Previous Traumatic Experiences
People who have experienced a previous trauma, such as a rape, car accident, disaster, or act of violence, are more susceptible to PTSD . The stress of the trauma can have a cumulative effect, and a new traumatic experience can exacerbate the negative effects of a previous trauma. This is especially true for those with early and longer-lasting childhood trauma.
History of Abuse
People with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse tend to be more susceptible to PTSD. Such experiences contributed to previous trauma and their effects may be reinforced by any additional trauma.
Family History of PTSD or Depression TOP
People with a family history of PTSD and/or depression tend to be more susceptible to PTSD. Family history of other mental health problems may also increase the risk.
History of Substance Abuse TOP
People with a history of substance abuse tend to be more susceptible to PTSD. It may be that drug use and alcohol use disorder interfere with a person's ability to cope with the added stress of a traumatic event.
Poor Coping Skills TOP
Coping skills and the level of psychological functioning can play a role in a person’s susceptibility to PTSD. People are more susceptible to PTSD if they have poor coping skills or lower levels of psychological functioning. They may have little sense of control over their circumstances or blame themselves for the trauma.
Lack of Social Support TOP
Considerable research suggests that positive social and family relationships can help moderate the effects of stress and trauma. Conversely, people who lack supportive relationships and environments tend to be more vulnerable to stress and therefore more at risk for PTSD after experiencing trauma. A social environment that produces shame, guilt, stigmatization, or self-hatred also increase the risk.
Ongoing Stress TOP
The effects of extreme or ongoing stress on a person can result in extensive physical and psychological problems. This can reduce the ability to cope with trauma, therefore increasing the risk of PTSD.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
PTSD basics. National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder website. Available at:
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Accessed December 20, 2014.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated August 19, 2016. Accessed October 4, 2016.
Stern, TA et al. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2008.
Last reviewed December 2015 by Adrian Preda, MD
Last Updated: 12/20/2014
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