How PTSD May Lead to Anxiety Disorders

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are two disorders that can occur at the same time. This is not entirely surprising given that PTSD is a trauma- and stressor-related disorder which can manifest in different ways from one person to the next.

As such, PTSD (a disorder caused by exposure to death, serious injury, sexual violence, or threats) can lead to other disorders that each have their own set of unique causes, characteristics, and symptoms.

In addition to GAD, other co-occurring disorders can include pain disorder (PD), social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and specific phobia.

Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) goes well beyond the normal worrying and fretting that most people experience. It is defined as the excessive worry about subjects or events that persist at least six months.

The anxiety is something the person can’t seem to control with the object of worry often switching from one thing to the next. The worrying ultimately takes up a lot of a person’s day with little relief and to the point where relationships and work are affected.

A person is diagnosed with GAD in the presence of at least three of the following physical or cognitive symptoms:

  • Edginess or restlessness
  • Fatigue or tiring easily
  • Impaired concentration or feeling as if one’s mind suddenly goes blank
  • Irritability, either internalized or externalized
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping or unsatisfying sleep

In order to confirm a diagnosis, the symptoms cannot be explained by any other causes or conditions including prescription medications, alcohol use, illicit drug use, neurological problems, or another medical condition.

The Relationship Between PTSD and GAD

Research suggests that roughly one in six people with PTSD experience GAD at some stage in their condition. It further suggests that the rate of GAD in people with PTSD is as much as six times higher than that found in the general population.

While the reasons for their coexistence are not entirely clear, we do know that worry is a common feature of PTSD. Because emotional responses are typically hyper-aroused in people with PTSD, worries can also be extended and exaggerated to the point where they can no longer be controlled. In some individuals, worry may even be used as a coping mechanism.

It is not unusual to hear people with PSTD say that worrying about other events or troubles distracts them from the things that are more upsetting to them.

Worry can provide them distance from the thoughts and feelings they are unable to face. Another possible explanation is that PTSD and GAD have similar origins. While trauma is the innate cause of PTSD, it can also be the trigger that leads to GAD.

Other Disorders That Co-Exist With PTSD

In the same way that GAD can coexist with PTSD, other anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders share similar origins and overlapping symptoms. Among them:

  • Panic disorder (PD) is experienced in around seven percent of people with PTSD. It is characterized by frequent and unexpected panic attacks and ongoing concerns about future attacks. PD occurs in people with PTSD at a rate four times greater than that of the general population.
  • Social anxiety disorder occurs in 28 percent of people with PTSD and is defined by the intense fear and avoidance of social situations. Having PTSD may be the natural consequence of the disorder as both are characterized by feelings of isolation and “not fitting in.”
  • Specific phobia occurs in 31 percent of people with PTSD and is typified by the fear of specific objects (such as spiders, blood, or dogs) or situations (elevators, bridges, heights). People with PTSD are seven times more likely to have specific phobia as the general public.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has been less studied in relation to PTSD, but research suggests that up to 47 percent of people with PTSD may have OCD. OCD is characterized by excessive obsessive and/or intrusive thoughts as well as repetitive behaviors or thoughts (compulsions).

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD or another mental health issue, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • National Institute of Mental Health. "Anxiety Disorders." Bethesda, Maryland; updated March 2016.