Delayed-Onset PTSD: Signs and Symptoms

Nov 9, 2021, 3:10 PM | Updated: Nov 10, 2021, 2:00 pm

SPONSORED — You’re probably familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder. Often abbreviated as PTSD, this condition is diagnosed when a person experiences a set of symptoms for at least a month after a traumatic event. However, for some people, these issues take longer to develop. This results in a diagnosis of delayed-onset PTSD and sometimes can be the cause of addiction.

What is Delayed-Onset PTSD?

This little-known subtype of PTSD is the subject of recent research. Scientists have found that nearly one in four PTSD diagnoses may actually be delayed onset. So, what is delayed-onset PTSD, and why does it occur?

The technical definition of this condition is that a person does not develop a diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder until at least six months after exposure to a traumatic event. Sometimes, it may take years for a person to begin displaying a trauma response.

This type of PTSD is mostly observed among older people, who may have experienced a deep trauma when they were younger. However, those in recovery may also be at risk.

Delayed PTSD Symptoms

Symptoms of this PTSD subtype are…

  • Vivid recollections, flashbacks, and nightmares
  • Poor sleep (unable to fall or stay asleep)
  • Experiencing intense physical sensations
  • Panic attacks, dizziness, and chest pain
  • Significant changes in mood or behavior
  • Feeling guilty or blaming oneself for the incident
  • Memory loss surrounding the event
  • Being easily startled or feeling jumpy (hypervigilance)
  • Irritability, anxiety, and depression
  • Withdrawing socially (isolation)
  • Emotional detachment (feeling numb)
  • Avoiding reminders of the event
  • Difficulty concentrating

What Triggers PTSD Years Later?

Research has proposed a few different causes of delayed-onset PTSD. They include…

Exposure to additional life stressors. Struggles in one’s everyday life – like losing a loved one, unemployment, or the pandemic – may cause a person to experience increased vulnerability to PTSD symptoms. They may be more prone to rumination, flashbacks, nightmares, or anxiety.

Experiencing another traumatic event. Additional trauma may severely affect a person’s ability to cope with the things that have already happened. For example, if someone lost their parent in a car accident, experiencing a car crash could create a traumatic response. This can result in a delayed-onset PTSD diagnosis.

Worsening of existing PTSD symptoms. Those at greatest risk for delayed-onset PTSD are those whose post-traumatic symptoms didn’t quite meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD immediately following an event. It’s rare for a person to develop this condition out of the blue. Usually, those with delayed-onset PTSD already have some symptoms, which worsen after the fact.

Treatment for Delayed-Onset Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Everyone deals with trauma differently. Some people may be dramatically affected, while others are barely changed. However, it’s rare for a person to have no symptoms at all.

The best way to address delayed-onset PTSD is to focus on treating any and all trauma responses immediately following the event, even if they seem minor. While poor sleep and anxiety may not affect a person’s daily functioning, they have the potential to worsen in the future.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, we encourage you to speak with a clinical professional. Even if weeks, months, or years have passed since it occurred, it is important to be active in bettering your mental health. Treatment can also be helpful for those who do not meet the DSM-5 criteria for PTSD. Taking this step can help you to address any symptoms that may be worsening due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other stressors, without relying on any harmful coping mechanisms.

Trauma and Substance Abuse

Trauma is closely interwoven with addiction. First, people who have experienced a traumatic event are more likely to abuse substances in an attempt to numb themselves. The opposite is also true – people who have a drinking or drug problem are more likely to be exposed to traumatic events as a result of their substance use.

It is vital for individuals who have experienced trauma to find adaptive coping mechanisms that do not involve substance abuse. This behavior may seem helpful in the short term, but by not dealing with the root cause of one’s issues, it can only worsen in the long run. This pattern of use can create a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol or drugs, which must be addressed by professionals in a rehabilitative setting.

Help for Addiction and Delayed-Onset PTSD

At Lakeside-Milam, we specialize in behavioral health and mental health care. Our clinicians have assisted more than 100,000 in their journeys to recovery. If your substance use or PTSD symptoms have worsened over the course of the past year, we are here to help. Contact our admissions office for your individualized treatment plan.


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