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Home PTSD Criminal Behavior and PTSD

Criminal Behavior and PTSD

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At times the symptoms of PTSD may make it more likely that the sufferer will get in trouble with others or with the law. PTSD affects the way you see, think about, and respond to people and situations. Trauma survivors with PTSD may be more prone to feeling threatened in many situations, even when the feeling of threat is not warranted. Some may act on impulse or go to extremes to protect themselves.

Research shows that aggressive behavior is more common in those with PTSD than those without PTSD. For example, in one study, male Vietnam Veterans with PTSD committed more acts of violence against family and others than Veterans without PTSD. Also, rates of PTSD in prison inmates are higher than in the general public.

It is also possible that PTSD is not directly related to crime. Rather, a third factor could lead to both PTSD and criminal behavior. Also, keep in mind that the research findings on PTSD and crime vary widely due to different methods used in the studies.

Areas of functioning that may be affected by PTSD

Three areas of functioning may be affected by PTSD:

  1. thoughts
  2. level of arousal
  3. feelings

Below we present some ways that PTSD symptoms in each of these areas could set the stage for the survivor to act in an aggressive or even criminal way.


  • Flashbacks: People with this symptom of PTSD believe that they are again going through the trauma. When having a flashback, survivors with PTSD might commit an aggressive or criminal act while thinking that they are in danger again.
  • Perceived Threat: Even without being in an altered state of awareness, those with PTSD are more likely than those without PTSD to see threat around them. Their beliefs and their view of the world are often marked by themes of danger and mistrust. This way of seeing the world makes it more likely that they will be aggressive.
  • Beliefs about Justice: Those with PTSD may hold extreme beliefs about justice based on their having been through trauma. Examples of such beliefs that might lead to crimes include:
    1. Belief in the need for revenge or acting outside the law in order to right the perceived wrongs of others
    2. Little respect for authority or the law because of perceived and actual abuse by authority figures

Changes in level of arousal

  • Anger and Irritability: High levels of arousal are based on the survival instinct to "fight" or "flee" when faced with danger. Triggering of the "fight" instinct may mean that someone with PTSD is more likely to respond aggressively.
  • Being Hyper-alert: Many people with PTSD are always "on guard." This alertness may be extreme. It may lead the person to act out to try to protect him or herself or someone else, even if there is no real danger.
  • Startle Response: Those with PTSD may react on instinct or impulse to any sudden threat. Their responses may be extreme. For example, a person with PTSD may on instinct push back aggressively when accidentally bumped in a crowd.

Changes in feelings

  • Distress: When reminded of a trauma, those with PTSD have high levels of distress. This is likely to affect their judgment and make them less able to use reason in their responses.
  • Negative Feelings: Those with PTSD often have high levels of fear, worry, guilt, anger, shame, or depression. These unpleasant feelings may lead them to use drugs and alcohol in an attempt to feel better. Substance use and abuse can in turn cloud judgment and cause them to do things they might not normally do. Also, guilt may lead survivors to commit acts that will likely result in their being punished, injured or killed.
  • Feeling Numb: At the same time, another class of PTSD symptoms, emotional numbing, may lead to wrongful or criminal behavior because the sufferer has:
    1. Less empathy or feeling sorry for the victim
    2. Trouble feeling remorse or guilt for their acts
    3. Trouble sensing how severe and grave their criminal act is, or what the results may be

    Numbing could also lead some survivors to engage in "thrill-seeking" behaviors as they try to feel some type of emotion.

Summing it up

Symptoms of PTSD can sometimes lead to a lifestyle that makes aggressive or criminal behavior or sudden outbursts of violence more likely to occur. Those with PTSD often suffer from bad memories of the trauma. They may be always tense and fearful.

Feeling the need to be always "on guard" can cause survivors to see threat in normal situations. As a result, they may go to extremes to try to protect themselves. High levels of arousal may result in impulsive, violent behavior that goes beyond what is needed to address the perceived threat.

Further research is needed to make clearer the complex relationship between PTSD and crime. Even with this much-needed research, the role that PTSD may play in criminal behavior should be studied with care on a case-by-case basis.


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