Why, in the face of the same traumatic event, do some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder and others don’t? The answer to this question lies in peritraumatic risk factors, the group of circumstances that occur when trauma is experienced.
A traumatic event only facilitates the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when it overwhelms the individual. In effect, it surpasses the ‘threshold for trauma’ as defined by Belloch (2020), resulting in a serious disruption in normal day-to-day functioning.
“Perhaps the mind is much more powerful than we realize and isolates negative thoughts and traumatic memories.”
An approach to the concept of PTSD
“I feel like I’m trapped in my mind, I’m still so afraid of what they did to me”, “Every day, I feel violated again. It’s as if it never ends”, “Every time I hear the sound of some keys, I think someone’s coming into the house and going to kill me”, “When someone tells me to get into an elevator, any elevator, I freeze with fear and remember when I was beaten up in one”, “When reliving my traumatic memory I can hear the same sounds and smell the same smell”, “I can’t feel anything. It’s as if I’ve suddenly lost the ability to experience any emotions.”
All the previous sentences are examples of typical symptoms of PTSD. This condition develops when events are extraordinarily dangerous or even life-threatening to an individual. In fact, they’re so dreadful that they’re burned into their sensory and cognitive systems. Consequently, the slightest stimulus related to the traumatic event acts like gasoline being added to a fire. It makes the pain burn more intensely.
These individuals repeatedly experience their memories in the form of flashbacks. In fact, they remember them as if they were currently happening. This causes them tremendous discomfort and they feel horrified and often paralyzed. Unsurprisingly, they try to avoid them.
On the other hand, they’re constantly monitoring the environment. They’re extremely nervous and, at the slightest noise or hint of danger, they become suddenly startled. All of the above lasts for many weeks (WHO, 2021) and has a negative impact on their lives.
“Anxiety, nightmares, and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.”
-Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine–
Peritraumatic risk factors: dancing among the chaos
Peritraumatic damage refers to the tears in the fibers of the mind and soul that the traumatic event produces. They’re injuries of violence. The aftermath of emotional abuse. They destroy the individual’s faith and hope in the future.
Peritraumatic risk factors are a cluster of elements that explain why some individuals develop PTSD and others don’t when faced with the same traumatic event. Several factors have been identified as predisposing to the development of PTSD (Belloch, 2020):
- If an individual is emotionally fragile when the traumatic event occurs.
- Having a history of abuse. Stress that’s accumulated over time and is experienced in the present lowers the threshold for trauma.
- Lacking strong ties with family and friends. This means that, when a traumatic event is experienced, there’s a lack of help.
- Having problems adapting to changing situations. This makes people feel helpless and hopeless.
- Frequent traumatic events that last a considerable amount of time.
- The type of event. For instance, a human attacker is more likely to cause PTSD than a natural occurrence like an earthquake.
- A lack of control over the traumatic event.
- Higher severity of trauma.
- Having been in the military and having killed someone or having watched a colleague kill or torture another human being.
- Reacting to the trauma through the defense mechanism of dissociation.
Further research is required
As you’ve seen, there’s a mixture of peritraumatic risk factors. They allude to what happens during the traumatic event and, to a great extent, explain why some people develop the disorder and others don’t.
Clearly, more research is needed on how to prevent the development of PTSD, by intervening in these variables. After all, their strength can dictate whether or not an individual develops PTSD.
“A person should never be reduced to his or her trauma.”