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Can a traumatic event cause anxiety disorders?

Anxiety disorders are caused by a complex combination of biological, genetic, psychological, and environmental factors. Traumatic events are a key environmental factor known to trigger some anxiety disorders, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, a rape increases your risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder: PSTD occurs in 65 percent of men and 46 percent of women who are raped.

Yes.  Trauma can lead to (and is required for) a diagnosis of either acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder - both of which are anxiety disorders.  However, not all people who are exposed to a traumatic event or stressor develop an anxiety disorder.  Some may develop free floating anxiety about a variety of issues that lasts for at least 6 months (Generalized Anxiety Disorder).  It is also possible that a traumatic event may presage the development of panic attacks and if those panic attacks start to strike without warning and cause marked distress for the person - that would result in Panic Disorder.  Trauma can contribute to the onset of anxiety disorders in myriad ways, the key is that after being exposed to trauma, that a person get good mental health services as early as possible to help sort through the impact of the trauma and help lessen the long term impact of the trauma.
People who are extremely anxious may think that a trying experience has given them reason to feel that way. And to a large degree, they're right.

A traumatic event can be a trigger for acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and specific phobia. Either of the two stress disorders usually begins within days of a terrifying experience. While a phobia may not develop immediately after a traumatic event, it can often be traced back to one. For example, many adults who fear dogs were attacked by dogs as youngsters.

Growing evidence suggests highly stressful experiences, especially early in life, increase the risk for anxiety by impairing a person's ability to negotiate emotional bumps in the road later on. Such experiences include abuse or neglect, emotional deprivation, and the loss of or separation from one's mother. Studies show that rat pups separated from their mothers for just several minutes early in life have a much greater startle response than other pups when faced with stress several months later.

Traumas seem to alter the brain in a way that makes it more susceptible to anxiety. In addition to making the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis  hypersensitive, they may also change the structure of the brain. The hippocampus, which works closely with the amygdala (the brain's "fear" center), is smaller in some people with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as some who have endured extreme, prolonged stress.

Of course, not everyone who has survived a traumatic event develops an anxiety disorder. That's where an individual's genes and brain chemistry come in. One theory is that some people are genetically or biologically more susceptible to anxiety, but that it often takes a traumatic life event to serve as the catalyst.

In some cases, the trauma or stress is not apparent. Some people seem to develop an anxiety disorder "out of the blue." But when they seek help, a mental health professional often discovers clues that suggest an undiagnosed anxiety disorder experienced in childhood. For example, a 20-year-old with generalized anxiety disorder may have been a 3-year-old who had a hard time being away from her parents when they left for work (separation anxiety).

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.