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What Puts Someone At Risk For PTSD?

Why Not Everyone Develops PTSD After a Traumatic Event

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Updated June 04, 2009

A number of factors that increase risk for PTSD have been identified. It is important to understand what may increase risk for PTSD because the experience of traumatic events are quite common. Many people will experience a traumatic event at some point in their life. However, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will eventually go on to develop PTSD. So, who might be more likely to develop PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event?

Researchers have been working hard on this question as it is an important one to answer. If you know who might be more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event, steps can be taken to treat the individual before the PTSD develops. These steps are called "prevention efforts" because they act to prevent or stop the development of PTSD and all that goes along with it such as relationship problems or substance abuse.

Researchers have done numerous studies in an attempt to identify certain characteristics of a person or a traumatic event that determine who does and does not eventually develop PTSD after a traumatic event. These characteristics are referred to as risk factors.

Potential Risk Factors for PTSD

In a review of 68 studies of PTSD, several risk factors were identified that have consistently been found to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event:

  • The experience of another, past traumatic event.

  • The experience of psychological difficulties prior to experiencing the traumatic event.

  • Family history of psychological problems.

  • The extent with which there was a threat to life during the traumatic event.

  • The amount of support that people felt they had after experiencing the traumatic event.

  • The person's emotional response (fear, helplessness, horror, guilt, and shame) at the time of the traumatic event.

  • Dissociation at the time of the traumatic event. Dissociation is a particular type of response to a stressful experience where a person may actually feel separated or cut-off from themselves and/or their surroundings. When in a "dissociative state," someone may feel numb, lose track of time, feel as though they are floating outside of their body, or have no memories about a certain period of time.

Which Risk Factors Had the Most Support?

All of these factors were found to increase the likelihood of developing PTSD after a traumatic event to some extent. However, dissociation at the time of the traumatic event stood out as the strongest predictor of who developed PTSD following a traumatic event.

Why might this be the case? Dissociation at the time of a traumatic event means that a person was not connected with what was happening during the traumatic event. This may limit the extent with which a person can fully process their emotions about a traumatic event, and therefore, their ability to cope with the event.

Which Risk Factors Had the Least Support?

As mentioned above, all risk factors had support for increasing the likelihood of developing PTSD. However, the weakest risk factors for developing PTSD were a family history of psychological problems, the experience of another traumatic event, and the experience of psychological difficulties before the traumatic event.

Conclusion

This study provides some insight into who may be at a greater risk to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. Of course, more research is needed as there are likely other important factors that the researchers did not look at.

If you have any of the risk factors discussed above, you may be more likely to develop PTSD following a traumatic event. However, it is important to remember that just because you have experienced another traumatic event or come from a family with a history of psychological problems, for example, you are not guaranteed to develop PTSD after a traumatic event. It just means that you may be more vulnerable for developing the disorder.

Seeking help (whether in the form of social support from loved ones or psychotherapy from a mental health professional) soon after experiencing a traumatic event may "defuse" these risk factors, preventing the development of PTSD.

Source:

Ozer, E.J., Best, S.R., Lipsey, T.L., & Weiss, D.S. (2003). Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 52-73.

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