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An Overview of Psychological Risk Factors for PTSD

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Updated November 29, 2012

A number of risk factors following a traumatic event have been found to be associated with the development of PTSD. These include previous exposure to traumatic events, the amount of social support a person has, and a family history of psychological problems. But there are also a number of psychological risk factors that may increase risk for PTSD after a traumatic event. These risk factors primarily focus on how people respond to their emotions and thoughts after a traumatic event. This article provides an overview of some of these psychological risk factors for PTSD.

1. Anxiety Sensitivity and PTSD

Anxiety sensitivity refers to a person's tendency to fear anxiety-related symptoms (for example, increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, headaches) due to the belief that there will be some negative outcome as a result of having those symptoms. A number of studies have found that anxiety sensitivity increases vulnerability for the development of PTSD. These findings, as well as ways in which you can reduce your anxiety sensitivity, are reviewed here.

2. Intolerance of Uncertainty and PTSD

Intolerance of uncertainty refers to how people perceive and respond to situations that are uncertain. People with high intolerance of uncertainty respond to uncertain or unpredictable situations or experiences with very high levels of anxiety. They may believe that uncertainty is a negative or dangerous thing, and they may also try to avoid situations that are uncertain. In addition, people who are intolerant of uncertainty may begin to experience constant worry about what could happen in the future. Studies suggest that intolerance of uncertainty may be associated with PTSD. Learn more about this connection in this article.

3. Difficulties Regulating Emotions and Risk for PTSD

Emotion regulation refers to the ways in which people respond to their emotions. Healthy emotion regulation is viewed as being aware and accepting of your emotions, recognizing that emotions provide us with useful information about ourselves and our environment, and being able to engage in healthy and adaptive behaviors (for example, going to work everyday, maintaining relationships with others) even when we are experiencing high levels of distress. However, studies show that people with PTSD experience a number of difficulties in this area. This has led some researchers to suggest that difficulties managing emotions may be a risk factor for developing PTSD after a traumatic event. Without proper treatment, these difficulties may then become worse after PTSD develops. This article discusses some of the research on emotion regulation difficulties and PTSD.

4. The Avoidance of Emotion in PTSD

Following a traumatic event, people are likely going to experience a variety of negative emotions, including shame, anger, guilt, sadness, and fear. These emotions can be very difficult to sit with. People who have a tendency to avoid their emotions may take steps to try to shut down their emotions, such as through substance use or other unhealthy behaviors. Although these behaviors may be useful in the short term, in the long term they will interfere with the processing of those emotions, and can contribute to the development of PTSD. Learn more about the relationship between emotional avoidance and PTSD in this article, as well as ways to reduce emotional avoidance.

5. Low Distress Tolerance Among People with PTSD

Distress tolerance is defined as the actual or perceived ability to withstand emotional distress. Distress tolerance is an important ability to have, but a number of studies have found that low distress tolerance is associated with PTSD. The experience of a traumatic event may result in a number of intense and frequent negative emotions, and people who are unable to tolerate these emotions may begin to avoid their emotions, which could increase the risk for developing PTSD. Learn more about the relationship between distress tolerance and PTSD in this article.
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