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PTSD : Childhood Trauma and Other Risk Factors

We have already seen that severe childhood trauma can lead to PTSD or Complex PTSD (click here to read my article on the difference between these two conditions).

However, not every child who experiences severe childhood trauma will go on to develop these conditions – whether or not s/he does will also depend on other risk factors being either present or absent. Because of individual differences relating to these other risk factors, some young people will be more predisposed to developing PTSD or Complex PTSD than others.

The main other risk factors are as follows:






Let’s examine each of these in turn:

1) BIOLOGICAL: Studies have found that those individuals with a high level of the hormone CORTISOL (a hormone related to stress) in their bodies are more susceptible to the effects of stress and are therefore more likely to develop PTSD/Complex PTSD than those who naturally produce lower levels of this hormone.

2) GENETIC: Studies reveal that those who have a fault in the gene that codes for monoamine oxidase (a naturally produced brain chemical associated with depression) are at increased risk of becoming aggressive/violent under stress which is one of the symptoms of PTSD/Complex PTSD – this suggests those with the faulty gene are more likely to respond dysfunctionally to trauma compared to those who possess a non-faulty version of this gene.

Also, it has been found that those who are genetically vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress are also at greater risk of developing PTSD/Complex PTSD

3) PSYCHOLOGICAL: An individual’s RESILIENCE is also a very important factor relating to how likely s/he is to develop PTSD/Complex PTSD.

Those who possess a high level of resilience are more likely to be able to effectively mentally process their adverse experiences; this, in turn, increases their ability to cope with what has happened and move forward in their lives. (NB: Therapy is often important to help the individual process and make sense of his/her traumatic experience).

Furthermore, those individuals who have a naturally positive and optimistic personality type are also less likely to develop PTSD/Complex PTSD compared to those who do not.

4) PHYSIOLOGICAL: Studies on brain function have discovered that those with an overactive hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (a specific physical brain system) are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress which, in turn, places them at greater risk of developing PTSD/Complex PTSD.

It is also currently suggested by some experts that those who possess a smaller than average hippocampus (a specific physical region/structure of the brain)  are more vulnerable to developing PTSD/Complex PTSD than those who don’t. However, further research is necessary before any firm conclusions may be drawn.

5) ENVIRONMENTAL: Environmental factors are extremely important in determining whether or not an individual is likely to develop PTSD/Complex PTSD.

Environments that put an individual at high risk include:

– environments in which the individual receives little emotional support to help him/her deal with the effects of the trauma

– environments in which the individual receives little support from society

– environments in which the trauma is repeated (rather than being a one-off incident)

– environments in which the trauma was deliberately inflicted upon the individual





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