Biological Factors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Biological Factors of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder


During one’s life, there are a number of hostile life events that occur. Whenever they do, they have a great impact on the lives of those affected. One of the greatest bearings is that the individuals tend to develop trauma, which in the long-run ends up being Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The veterans are among the most affected individuals when it comes to PTSd, owing to their tragic experiences of war. In many circumstances, people who have been through traumatic experiences but do not develop post-traumatic disorder find themselves getting distressed if confronted by the tragedy. Association of American Psychiatrists – APA – classifies PTSD as a psychological disorder. As much as it comes from traumatic events, the values of an individual cover up quite a lot when symptoms of the disorder are considered (Sherin&Nemeroff, 2011). Some people improve by themselves after trauma, whereas others require help and assistance to get back to their normal state. Different factors play their part in the development of PTSD, such as sociocultural, physical and biological factors.

PTSD Background Information

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, commonly known as DSM-V, PTSD goes with the code 308.91 (APA, 2013). There are three primary domains that characterize the presence of PTSD if their symptoms and signs exceed a month. The three are; exposure reminders, activation, and deactivation. Each of them has a number of signs that characterize it, and they play a critical role in the diagnosis of PTSD. The DSM lists the criteria for the diagnosis of the disorder. Some of the signs and symptoms include;

  • Reliving experiences of the traumatic event, this could be through having distressing memories and images.
  • Experiencing upsetting dreams about the event
  • Flashbacks as if the event was happening again
  • Attempts to avoid events or situations reminding of the traumatic event
  • Engaging in dangerous and self-destructive behaviors.

(APA, 2013).

Experiencing or even witnessing a traumatic tragedy like a bombing event, earthquake’s destruction or death of a loved one can lead to PTSD.It is possible to treat PTSD, essentially through therapeutic counsel, as well as drugs such as antidepressants (APA, 2013). Because of the nature through which people develop PTSD, it is difficult to avoid it; it can get to anyone anytime, as long as something traumatic happens in their lives.


The Biological Factors

As aforementioned, there are different factors that relate to PTSD. Apart from biological factors, there are physical and sociocultural factors, just to mention a few. There are several ways that PTSD relate to biological effects as discussed in this section. Among them; cortisol response, gene-environment interactions, the volume of brain area and endogenous stress hormones release. All these factors are related to the body response to stressors. These factors could be a great baseline in explanation of some of the most core issues that relate to PTSD (Sherin&Nemeroff, 2011).


  1. Cortisol Response

Cortisol refers to a steroid hormone released by humans in response to stress(Sherin&Nemeroff, 2011). As such, the expectations would be that high levels of the same are released in cases when one is stressed. Keeping in mind PTSD comes in the form of stress, someone suffering from the same is expected to release much cortisol. Contrary to expectations, experiments indicate that levels of cortisol released are similar to people with PTSD and those without (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2009). Scientists have gone further to indicate an exception with women, where women with PTSD show higher levels of cortisol than those without. The type of trauma also matters when levels of cortisol response come into play. Scientists argue that people who have experienced sexual abuse or physical abuse show lower levels of cortisol, than the set baseline (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2009). As a standalone, it cannot be used as a determinant of whether an individual has PTSD or other stressors. However, it is a good baseline in the whole process.

  1. Gene-Environment Interactions

This is a scientific phrase referring to the response of two different genotypes to environmental variation in different ways. Different genes are said to respond differently to life events (Henline, 2002). For instance, there is a gene that can withstand three traumatizing life events, whereas another one cannot. These variations can only be explained when people respond differently to trauma, and their genotypes are established. One of the genes most pronounced in its prevalence to the development of PTSD is 5HTTLPR, also known as serotonin transporter(Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2009). This has been proved through research done by scientists in Florida after the 2004 hurricane season. Possession of this gene, coupled with low or lack of social support increases the risk factor of getting post-traumatic stress disorder after tragic events. This is a genotype when exposed to events like earthquake or terror strike give a high prevalence to PTSD.

iii.    Volume of Brain Area (Hippocampus)

The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is perceived as the center for emotion. It is also related to the nervous system and the memory. This makes it a point of concern when trauma comes to the fore. The volume of this area is said to be proportional to the chances of one getting PTSD (Henline, 2002). The effect of PTSD on the hippocampus is the heaviest neurological impact that this disorder comes with. Recalling and storing memories are major roles of the hippocampus. This recall becomes disrupted by PTSD. The disorder is associated with small hippocampal volumes, especially in veterans who have experienced the disorder (Butcher, Mineka, & Hooley, 2009). Therefore, the larger the volume, the lower the chances of getting PTSD and the reverse is true. Those with small hippocampal volume and have experienced PTSD or depression may show flashes of quick unspecific memories. A small hippocampus, or hippocampal volume, is thus related to having a vulnerability biologically.

  1. Endogenous stress hormones

Apart from cortisol, there are other hormones in the body responsible for stress. These hormones affect memory when they are released during extreme stress. Among the hormones include norepinephrine, whose excessive release during trauma causes amnesia witnessed in people with PTSD (Henline, 2002). Neutralization of stimuli from the environment triggers the release of some of these hormones. However, the task of neutralization tends to shut other tasks leading to decreased involvement in everyday life. When such a thing happens, stress increases and recovery from a traumatic experience slows down.

Apart from the above discussed biological factors, scientists have invested their time into investigating much of the biological relations to PTSD. Memories related to a tragic event can be triggered by physiological arousal. Cerebral lateralization which is dysfunctional is also said to be responsible for some PTSD symptoms like being hyper vigilant and intrusive images (Henline, 2002). The emotional arousal of people suffering from PTSD is also disjointed, showing chronic psychological reactions to situations. All these are biological issues related to PTSD, and factors that cannot be ignored(Henline, 2002).


When PTSD is mentioned, the minds of many people wander and settle on the veterans. Battlefield memories ring in their mind, whenever they think of the time they put their bodies on the line to defend their beloved nation. The people of Haiti with the 2010 earthquake and the Americans with the 9/11 attacks may not be new to PTSD. The reflections of the tragic images and moments have haunted many for years. However, there is something they may never have thought of, why are some people more vulnerable to trauma-related stress than others? This is a question that can only be answered by biologists in collaboration with social scientists.The social factors, physical and cultural risk factors of PTSD have been in the public domain for long, but it is time to try and understand the biological factors. As complex as they may seem, biological factors relating to PTSD make sense. If one considers that stressors bring about PTSD, and they are related to hormones, the mind and the memory, then factoring in biological effects is all sensible (Sherin&Nemeroff, 2011). Biological factors bring up a new perspective of understanding PTSD and its prevalence among the people.



American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5thed.).

Butcher, J., Mineka, S., & Hooley, J. (2009). Abnormal psychology (14th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Henline, L. (2002). PTSD – Biological Retrieved 29 April 2016, from

Sherin, J. E., &Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: the neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 13(3), 263–278.

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