Perceived Threat May Lead to PTSD

Soldiers returning from deployment to a combat zone often experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can occur any time an individual is involved in or a witness to a disaster or tragedy. The experience can be anything from witnessing an assault to involvement in a car accident.

The diagnosis of PTSD can involve various symptoms. Patients often experience flashbacks and insomnia, and may also meet criteria for anxiety and depression. In addition to a variety of symptoms, the severity can range from mild to debilitating.

Not only can a disaster or trauma lead to PTSD, but according to a new study, there may be evidence that the perception of a high level of risk can lead to the development of PTSD. Juliette M. Mott of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Texas wanted to examine whether soldiers who perceive their position to be dangerous could be at an elevated risk for PTSD.

Mott wanted to determine whether the rate of development of PTSD was equally significant for those who had a perceived threat of trauma when compared to those soldiers who actually experienced a trauma.

The research focused on 1,740 veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. The study included measures of stress, mood, anxiety and substance-use and how they were connected to perceived threat.

The results of the analysis showed that the soldiers with the greatest perceived threat before and during deployment had the highest risk for post-deployment symptoms of PTSD. Mott found that veterans with higher levels of threat perception also had the highest levels of mood, anxiety and stress problems when compared to veterans who did not perceive themselves to be in a dangerous situation.

In addition, Mott found that co morbidity was increased among participants who believed that they were under an increased threat during their deployment.

One surprising find was that the presence of a perceived threat did not impact the risk of developing post-deployment substance use problems. Despite that finding, the study clearly demonstrates that veterans who have a perceived threat of danger may be equally impacted with symptoms of PTSD as those who have experienced a significant trauma.

Mott notes that the findings may be important for the development of improved preparation and training for those who are leaving for combat. These strategies may help improve threat perceptions of those preparing for deployment.

The findings may be limited because they are focused on the experiences of those involved with the two most recent wars and do not provide information about experiences in other military engagements.

Mott believes that future research should include a comparison of experiences in these two recent wars with those of veterans from different eras to determine how perceived threat impacts the symptoms of PTSD.

The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy.

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