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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Who is at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

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    Penny Lewis

    Clinical Psychologist, Counsellor, Psychologist, Psychotherapist

    I am a Clinical Psychologist with more than 25 years experience working with adults with a broad range of backgrounds dealing with a wide variety … View Profile

    Anyone who experiences (or witnesses) a traumatic event in which their body or life (or that of a loved one) is at risk of developing PTSD, particularly if they are left feeling helpless, horrified or extremely frightened.  However, many people do not end up with PTSD after exposure to traumatic events. Recovery from trauma without professional help is the most likely outcome, especially with support from friends and family (which is the best predictor of recovery).
    For those exposed to trauma, the risk of developing PTSD is greater if the trauma results from an interpersonal event (such as sexual or physical assault) rather than a natural disaster.  For example, around 65% of women who have been raped develop PTSD, while the rate is 4% of those who have been in a natural disaster. Others who have a higher risk are those with a previous history of trauma (e.g. sexual abuse or neglect as a child or other trauma earlier in life) or have been exposed to repeated trauma (such as living in a war zone or being an ambulance officer). Additional risk factors include exposure to intense or prolonged trauma (e.g. torture); and having other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression ones self or in family members.
    Finally, the way people responded during the event can also predict whether they will go on to develop PTSD. Those who were dissociating (i.e. feeling numb, detached from themselves or their surroundings, experiencing  time slowing or speeding up, not remembering certain periods of time) during the trauma or were extremely  distressed during, and for several days after the event, have been found to be at higher risk.
    Keep in mind that having some of these risk factors does not mean you will definitely develop PTSD if you have been exposed to trauma, as they just suggest you may be more vulnerable to developing it. The fact that social support is the best predictor of recovery means that seeking help – either from loved ones or a therapist with experience dealing with trauma if you do not have anyone you can turn to, is of the utmost importance.

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