How PTSD Can Cause Learning Disabilities

Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT


Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that affects about eight million people every year in the United States. Between 7 and 8% of the population will experience some degree of PTSD in their lifetimes.

How PTSD Can Cause Learning Disablities

While most people understand that PTSD can contribute to stress, anxiety, and insomnia, a lesser-known issue is the impact PTSD can have on the ability to learn.

Effects of PTSD on the Brain

Trauma can affect the brain in multiple ways. Both short-term and long-term trauma can change neurochemical systems, which include the regulation and release of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine.

Other areas that can be impacted include the brain circuits that make up the stress response. People who experience PTSD may experience changes in the:

  • Hippocampus

  • Amygdala

  • Medial prefrontal cortex

When neurochemical systems and brain circuits are altered by PTSD, the result is usually behavioral manifestations that can include anger, insomnia, and memory problems.

The Link between PTSD and Learning Disabilities

The idea that PTSD might lead to learning disabilities isn’t new, but it hasn’t yet to be added to the widespread understanding of the issues that affect people with PTSD.

An illuminating 2012 study explored the ways that PTSD can negatively impact associative learning.

The experiment involved groups of Israeli police officers diagnosed with PTSD and groups of Hungarian civilians with PTSD,. These groups also included members who had experienced trauma without a diagnosis of PTSD. The study found that all the subjects were able to complete the first stage of the Acquired Equivalence Task, which involved learning an initial stimulus-outcome association.

The second part of the experiment involved applying the learned stimulus-outcome association in a novel situation. This is where the impact of PTSD became clear. The subjects who did not have PTSD were able to apply what they had learned in the first stage to the second stage of novel experiences. The subjects with PTSD were not able to apply what they had learned.