Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a condition characterized by flashbacks, avoidance, anxiety, disturbed sleep, nightmares, memory impairment, and excessive feelings of guilt following a traumatic event. The traumatic event could be combat in war, a natural disaster, a sexual assault, a robbery, an accident, or the unexpected death of a loved one. Studies show that about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. However, only about eight percent of men and 20 percent of women will develop symptoms of PTSD. Why do relatively few people who experience trauma develop PTSD? Part of the answer has to do with individual circumstances. One study of Vietnam War veterans spanned more than 12 years. It found that the single most important factor in whether someone developed PTSD was the severity of the trauma. Nearly everyone who had developed PTSD had been exposed to combat. However, just under a third of soldiers exposed to potentially traumatic combad developed PTSD. Of the soldiers who experienced the most severe trauma, the number who developed PTSD rose to about 70 percent. However, that’s not the whole picture. PTSD is relatively short-lived in some people, while others may experience it for years. The study of Vietnam War veterans also identified factors that make PTSD persist. The two biggest factors were childhood abuse prior to the war, and a pre-existing mental health issue other than PTSD. Age of exposure to trauma also made a difference. Younger soldiers exposed to combat were much more likely to develop lingering PTSD than older soldiers. This makes sense as cognitive development continues to about age 25 and younger people are more likely to generalize from a traumatic experience. Genes may also play a role. Indirectly, genetic factors may make you more prone to depression or anxiety disorders, which make you more vulnerable to PTSD. Genes may also play a more direct role in how you respond to trauma. There is a serotonin transporter gene that comes in several varieties. If you have the weaker variety of this gene, your brain may not be able to transport enough of the mood stabilizing neurotransmitter, serotonin, and you become more vulnerable to depression or PTSD following a traumatic event. While many of the factors that make you more vulnerable to PTSD are outside of your control, there are some factors you do have a little more control over. Having some kind of social support is a big one. People who feel more supported by friends, families, and coworkers after a traumatic event have fewer lingering symptoms of PTSD. You can’t always choose your coworkers and you can never choose your family, but you can decide to spend more time with supportive friends. Coping skills are also important. People who think about the traumatic event as an isolated incident rather than something that could happen again at any moment, for example, are less likely to develop PTSD.
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