Anxiety raises risk of PTSD after trauma

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — People who worry constantly are at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, according to new research.

Many people experience traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, being assaulted or witnessing violence, but only a small minority develop PTSD, says study author Naomi Breslau, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University.

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“So the question is, ‘What’s the difference between those who develop PTSD and the majority who don’t,'” Breslau says. “This paper says people who are habitually anxious are more vulnerable. It’s an important risk factor.”

As reported in Psychological Medicine, Breslau reached that conclusion by analyzing data from a decade-long study of about 1,000 randomly selected people in southeast Michigan.

At the start of the study, participants answered a dozen questions that gauged what psychiatric experts call neuroticism, a trait marked by chronic anxiety, depression, and a tendency to overreact to everyday challenges and disappointments. They then had follow-up assessments at three, five, and ten years.

Half the participants experienced a traumatic event during the study period. Those who scored higher on the neuroticism scale as the study began were more likely to end up among the five percent who developed PTSD.

Breslau says the findings are particularly persuasive because the study assessed participants’ personalities before they had a traumatic experience, rather than measuring neuroticism among those who already had PTSD.

“There have been studies of neuroticism and PTSD, but they’ve all been retrospective,” she says. “We’re never sure of the order of things in a retrospective study. This study sets it in a clear time order.”

Breslau says there isn’t much that can be done to prevent PTSD, but her findings may help doctors recognize people at the highest risk and respond accordingly when they experience trauma.

“We need to be concerned about people with previous psychiatric disorders if there’s some kind of catastrophe,” she says. “The main thing is that doctors have to look after their patients, ask them questions and get to know them.”

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Source: Michigan State University