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Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Phobias

Understanding the Link Between PTSD and Phobias

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Updated June 24, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Posttraumatic stress disorder is the most common psychological disorder in people who have suffered a severe trauma or natural disaster. However, some studies show that the risk of other anxiety disorders, including phobias, is also elevated in the months following a serious trauma. Additionally, some of the symptoms of PTSD can mirror those of phobias, making diagnosis more difficult. Here is what you should know about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias.

What Is PTSD?

Posttraumatic stress disorder is a complex psychological reaction to extreme stress or trauma. For PTSD to develop, the sufferer must have been exposed to a situation in which grave physical harm was present or threatened. Examples of situations that may lead to PTSD include combat, natural disaster, sexual abuse and viewing the death of another person.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD are far beyond those of a phobia, although some symptoms do overlap. PTSD has 17 specific symptoms, divided into three categories: re-experiencing, hyperarousal and avoidance. For a complete list of PTSD symptoms, see What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Post-Disaster Anxiety Disorders?

No one can accurately predict who will develop PTSD, phobias, or other disorders. Nonetheless, certain specific risk factors make it more likely that a disorder will occur. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Loss of a Loved One
  • Separation or Isolation
  • Displacement from Home or Family
  • Serious Harm to Self or Loved Ones

Age, gender and social class also appear to play a role, with middle-aged females from a lower socioeconomic bracket apparently the most susceptible to developing disorders. However, PTSD, phobias and other disorders can strike anyone. If you are concerned about your symptoms, see a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Differential Diagnosis

Most people who suffer from PTSD do not experience all of the symptoms. Some of the more commonly experienced symptoms of PTSD are similar to the symptoms of phobias. Likewise, other mental health conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder are sometimes triggered by disasters. It is also possible to develop more than one disorder simultaneously. Therefore, only a trained professional can decide which diagnosis is most appropriate.

Crisis Anniversaries

Interestingly, immediately after a disaster is not the only high-risk time for PTSD, phobias and other disorders to develop. Crisis anniversaries, or the anniversary date of a traumatic situation, can also trigger these disorders.

Crisis anniversary reactions may develop slowly in the weeks and months preceding the anniversary date, or may come on suddenly and unexpectedly. It is normal to feel some sadness and distress around the anniversary of any major trauma, but severe reactions may signal a disorder.

You can manage minor crisis anniversary reactions on your own by planning ahead for the date, staying busy and talking through your feelings with others. If your symptoms are more severe, however, it is important to seek treatment. Over time, an untreated anniversary reaction could develop into a chronic mental health disorder.

PTSD is the most common psychological disorder following a trauma. However, it is not the only anxiety disorder that may develop. If you have been through a serious event and are experiencing any unusual symptoms, visit a mental health professional as soon as possible.

Sources:

Smith MA, Melinda, Jaffe PhD, Jaelline, Segal PhD, Jeanne. "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Symptoms, Types and Treatment." HelpGuide.org. January 17, 2008. March 14, 2008. http://www.helpguide.org/mental/post_traumatic_stress_disorder_symptoms_treatment.htm

Norris, Fran. "Psychosocial Consequences of Major Hurricanes and Floods: Range, Duration, and Magnitude of Effects and Risk Factors for Adverse Outcomes." National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 24, 2011 from http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/fact_shts/fs_range_hurricane.html?opm=1&rr=rr141&srt=d&echorr=true

North, Carol. "Somatization in Survivors of Catastrophic Trauma: A Methodological Review." Environmental Health Perspectives. August 2002. 110:S4. Retrieved June 24, 2011 from http://www.ehponline.org/members/2002/suppl-4/637-640north/north-full.html

National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Two Years After Katrina: A Survey of Mental Health and Addiction Providers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Retrieved June 24, 2011 from http://www.thenationalcouncil.org/galleries/press-files/Summary%20of%20Survey%20Findings.pdf

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