Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition some people develop in the weeks, months, or years following a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD typically include flashbacks, avoidance of things related to the trauma, anxiety, disturbed sleep, nightmares, inability to remember key parts of the traumatic event, irritability, and excessive feelings of guilt. While PTSD is typically associated with combat veterans, it is more commonly caused by more familiar kinds of trauma, such as the unexpected death of a loved one, a sexual assault or some other violent crime, a serious accident, or a natural disaster. About 60 percent of men and about 50 percent of women will experience a traumatic event at some point, but only eight percent of men and 20 percent of women will develop PTSD. Why do some people develop the condition while others don’t? There are three primary factors.
Intensity of trauma
Not all trauma is equally intense. A 12-study of Vietnam War veterans found that intensity of trauma correlated with likelihood of developing PTSD. Almost everyone in the study who developed PTSD had been in combat, but just seeing combat wasn’t enough. Of all combat soldiers, about one third developed PTSD, but of the soldiers who experienced the most severe trauma, about 70 percent developed PTSD.
The same study of Vietnam War veterans examined why the symptoms of PTSD persist in some people but not in others. In other words, many people experience symptoms following trauma, but typically, these resolve on their own in a matter of weeks or months while others may have symptoms that last for years. The study found there were two main factors that influenced whether symptoms would persist: childhood abuse prior to the war and a mental health issue other than PTSD. Another factor that seems to make a difference is age at the time of the trauma. Younger soldiers were more likely to develop PTSD than older soldiers.
Genes appear to play an important role in who develops PTSD. This role can be direct or indirect. As noted above, having a pre-existing mental health issue, like anxiety or depression, for example, increases your risk for developing enduring symptoms. As with many conditions, there is a strong genetic component to mental health, so if you have a close relative with depression or anxiety, you are more likely to have it too, which makes you more vulnerable to PTSD. Genes may also play a more direct role in PTSD. For example, if you have a weaker variety of a serotonin transporter gene, you may be more vulnerable to developing PTSD after a trauma. Serotonin is a mood stabilizing neurotransmitter and insufficient levels of serotonin may increase your risk of depression and PTSD.
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