Who Is Most Likely to Recover From PTSD Without Treatment?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the diagnosis that mental health professionals use to identify people who experience a serious, relatively long-term adverse reaction to exposure to potentially life-threatening situations. In the worst-case scenario, the symptoms of this disorder can continue to exert their damaging effects for decades. In a study review published in 2014 in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, a team of Dutch and British researchers used data gathered from tens of thousands of affected individuals to approximate how often adults recover from their PTSD symptoms over the course of months or years without receiving any particular form of treatment.


Data compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD indicate that roughly half of all American women and more than half of all American men will experience traumatic situations associated with the later onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, much smaller numbers of men and women will actually develop the disorder. Specific traumas linked to the condition include combat participation, being present in a combat zone, adult exposure to physical or sexual attacks, childhood exposure to physical or sexual abuse, exposure to severe floods or other national disasters, exposure to life-threatening accidents and exposure to life-threatening physical illness. For a number of reasons, a woman exposed to severe mental/emotional trauma has higher chances of developing PTSD than a man exposed to such trauma. Doctors can’t diagnose PTSD in a person who has undergone a highly traumatic experience within a period of 30 days. Instead, they diagnose the condition in people who continue to experience symptoms after 30 days or only show the first signs of a damaging stress reaction after 30 days. Specific symptoms of the condition include nightmares or flashbacks that involuntarily recall a traumatic situation, an excessive state of mental arousal stemming from an overactive “fight-or-flight” response, avoidance of anything that serves as a trauma reminder and an ongoing or recurring negative outlook that impairs day-to-day functionality.

PTSD Treatment and Remission

Doctors primarily rely on counseling or psychotherapy to help people recover from PTSD. The most highly regarded psychotherapeutic option is an approach called cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy produces its benefits by educating affected individuals about the illness, making them more aware of the situations that trigger their symptoms and teaching them to establish new behavioral patterns that don’t trigger their symptoms. Some doctors also use other psychotherapeutic approaches that include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, brief psychodynamic psychotherapy, family counseling and group therapy. In addition, PTSD treatment may include the use of a class of antidepressant medications known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).

How Often Do Adults Recover?

In the study review published in Clinical Psychology Review, researchers from the Netherlands’ University of Amsterdam and Tilburg University and the United Kingdom’s Queen Mary University of London used data gathered from 42 previously conducted studies to determine how often people diagnosed with PTSD recover 10 months or more after receiving their initial diagnosis if they don’t receive treatment geared toward their condition. The studies under consideration included 81,642 adults diagnosed with the disorder. On average, the studies looked at the outcomes for untreated PTSD patients over the course of 40 months. The researchers looked at the numbers of people who no longer had diagnosable cases of PTSD; they considered cases of “spontaneous” remission rather than cases of remission stemming from PTSD-specific treatment. At the low end, the recovery rate for the participants of one study was just 8 percent; at the high end, the recovery rate for the participants of another study was 89 percent. All told, 44 percent of the participants in all of the studies recovered from their condition and no longer qualified for a PTSD diagnosis. The study’s authors note that the highest rates of spontaneous recovery apparently occur among people exposed to natural disaster-related trauma; conversely, the lowest rates of recovery apparently occur among people exposed to physical illness-related trauma. They also note that people diagnosed with PTSD fairly soon after developing their symptoms typically have higher chances of recovering spontaneously than people diagnosed after exhibiting symptoms for extended amounts of time. The authors believe their findings contribute considerably to the understanding of PTSD recovery, as well as the understanding of the lasting effects of specific sources of PTSD. It’s critically important to point out that no one can tell who will naturally recover from the condition; for this reason, all affected individuals should seek prompt treatment from qualified mental health professionals.

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