Background Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the only psychiatric condition that requires a specific event to have occurred for its diagnosis. Aims To gather evidence from the adult general population on whether life events (e.g. divorce, unemployment) generate as many symptoms of post-traumatic stress as traumatic events (e.g. accidents, abuse). Method Data on demographic characteristics and history of stressful events were collected through a written questionnaire sent to a random sample of 2997 adults. Respondents also filled out a PTSD symptom checklist, keeping in mind their worst event. Mean PTSD scores were compared, controlling for differences between the two groups. Differences in item scores and in the distribution of the total PTSD scores were analysed. Results Of the 1498 respondents, 832 were eligible for inclusion in our analysis. For events from the past 30 years the PTSD scores were higher after life events than after traumatic events; for earlier events the scores were the same for both types of events. These findings could not be explained by differences in demographics, history of stressful events, individual item scores, or the distribution of the total PTSD scores. Conclusions Life events can generate at least as many PTSD symptoms as traumatic events. Our findings call for further studies on the specificity of traumatic events as a cause of PTSD.