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PTSD - Risk Factors

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A combination of psychological and biological etiological processes along with the person's psychological history, the nature of the trauma, and the availability of posttrauma support go on to decide the absence or presence of PTSD symptoms in a person after a traumatic event. The risk factors have been enumerated beneath, however it must be borne in mind that someone without risk factors who is exposed to a traumatic event ,may also develop symptoms.

Demographic Risk Factors:

  • Women being at a greater risk than men
  • Black and Hispanic being at a greater risk than Caucasian

Pretrauma Risk Factors include:

  • previous trauma (childhood sexual or physical abuse)
  • childhood separation from parents
  • family instability
  • a predisposing mental health condition (anxiety or depression)
  • the type and severity of the traumatic event
  • lack of adequate and competent support for the person after the trauma. 

The psychological history of a person may include risk factors for developing PTSD after a traumatic event:

  • Borderline personality and/or dependent personality disorders
  • Low self-esteem
  • Neuroticism
  • Pre-existing negative beliefs
  • Previous trauma
People with borderline personality disorder often have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, hostile conflict, and parental loss or separation. Dependent personality disorder is characterized by low self-esteem, fear of separation, and the excessive need to be cared for by others. All of these features may predispose someone for PTSD after experiencing a traumatic event.

People who have experienced previous trauma(s) are at risk for developing PTSD. Repeated exposure to trauma causes hyperactive release of stress hormones, which may be instrumental in creating symptoms of PTSD.

Trauma-Related Risk Factors
The severity, duration, proximity to (direct or witnessed), and type of traumatic event are the most significant risk factors for developing PTSD. Directly experienced traumatic events include the following examples:

  • Combat
  • Kidnapping
  • Natural disasters (e.g., fire, tornado, earthquake)
  • Catastrophic accident (e.g., auto, airplane, mining)
  • Violent sexual assault
  • Violent physical assault
Witnessed traumatic events include the following examples:
  • Seeing another person violently killed or injured
  • Unexpectedly seeing a dead body or body parts
Whether or not the event was perpetrated in a sadistic manner (e.g., torture, rape) occurred accidentally (e.g., fire), or occurred as an "act of God" can affect whether a person develops PTSD and whether the disorder is acute, chronic, or has a delayed onset of symptoms.

Posttrauma Risk Factors
Symptoms and duration of PTSD may be more severe if there is a lack of support from family and/or community. For instance, a rape victim who either is blamed for the assault or not believed (e.g., in the case of rape by a family member) may be at greater risk for developing PTSD.

Next : symptoms and complications