Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Risk Factors

Although several PTSD risk factors have been identified, it's important to note that the condition can develop without the presence of these factors. Risk factors for PTSD include the following:

  • Previous trauma
  • Predisposing mental health condition
  • Especially traumatic/serious event
  • Lack of adequate and competent support after the trauma

Pre-trauma Risk Factors for PTSD

The psychological history of a person may include risk factors for developing PTSD after a traumatic event, including the following:

  • Borderline personality and dependent personality disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Previous trauma

People with borderline personality disorder often have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, hostile conflict, and parental loss or separation. Dependent personality disorder is characterized by low self-esteem, fear of separation, and the excessive need to be cared for by others. All of these features may predispose someone for PTSD who experiences a traumatic event.

People who have experienced previous trauma(s) are at risk for developing PTSD. Repeated exposure to trauma causes hyperactive release of stress hormones, which may be instrumental in creating symptoms of PTSD.

Trauma-Related Risk Factors for PTSD

The severity, duration, proximity to (direct or witnessed), and type of traumatic event are the most significant risk factors for developing PTSD.

Directly experienced traumatic events include the following examples:

  • Combat
  • Kidnapping
  • Natural disasters (e.g., fire, tornado, earthquake)
  • Catastrophic accident (e.g., auto, airplane, mining)
  • Violent sexual assault
  • Violent physical assault

Witnessed traumatic events include the following examples:

  • Seeing another person violently killed or injured
  • Unexpectedly seeing a dead body or body parts

Whether or not the event was perpetrated in a sadistic manner (e.g., torture, rape) occurred accidentally (e.g., fire), or occurred as an "act of God" can affect whether a person develops PTSD and whether the disorder is acute, chronic, or has a delayed onset of symptoms.

Posttrauma Risk Factors

Symptoms and duration of PTSD may be more severe if there is a lack of support from family and/or community. For instance, a rape victim who either is blamed for the assault or not believed (e.g., in the case of rape by a family member) may be at greater risk for developing PTSD.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Feb 2001

Last Modified: 13 Feb 2015