Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers With PTSD
- Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers With PTSD
ScienceDaily (Nov. 19, 2012) — New research on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers challenges popular assumptions about the origins and trajectory of PTSD, providing evidence that traumatic experiences in childhood -- not combat -- may predict which soldiers develop the disorder....
"Most studies on PTSD in soldiers following service in war zones do not include measures of PTSD symptoms prior to deployment and thus suffer from a baseline problem. Only a few studies have examined pre- to post-deployment changes in PTSD symptoms, and most only use a single before-and-after measure," says Berntsen.
The team aimed to address these methodological issues by studying a group of 746 Danish soldiers and evaluating their symptoms of PTSD at five different timepoints. Their study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Five weeks before the soldiers were scheduled to leave for Afghanistan, they completed a battery of tests including a PTSD inventory and a test for depression. They also completed a questionnaire about traumatic life events, including childhood experiences of family violence, physical punishment, and spousal abuse....
Rather than following some sort of "typical" pattern in which symptoms emerge soon after a particularly traumatic event and persist over time, Berntsen and colleagues found wide variation in the development of PTSD among the soldiers.
The vast majority of the soldiers (84%) were resilient, showing no PTSD symptoms at all or recovering quickly from mild symptoms.
The rest of the soldiers showed distinct and unexpected patterns of symptoms. About 4% showed evidence of "new-onset" trajectory, with symptoms starting low and showing a marked increase across the five timepoints. Their symptoms did not appear to follow any specific traumatic event.
Most notably, about 13% of the soldiers in the study actually showed temporary improvement in symptoms during deployment. These soldiers reported significant symptoms of stress prior to leaving for Afghanistan that seemed to ease in the first months of deployment only to increase again upon their return home.
What could account for this unexpected pattern of symptoms?
Compared to the resilient soldiers, the soldiers who developed PTSD were much more likely to have suffered emotional problems and traumatic events prior to deployment. Childhood experiences of violence, especially punishment severe enough to cause bruises, cuts, burns, and broken bones actually predicted the onset of PTSD in these soldiers. Those who showed symptoms of PTSD were more likely to have witnessed family violence, and to have experienced physical attacks, stalking or death threats by a spouse. They were also more likely to have past experiences that they could not, or would not, talk about. And they were less educated than the resilient soldiers....
The findings challenge the notion that exposure to combat and other war atrocities is the main cause of PTSD.
"We were surprised that stressful experiences during childhood seemed to play such a central role in discriminating the resilient versus non-resilient groups," says Berntsen. "These results should make psychologists question prevailing assumptions about PTSD and its development."
Peace and War Trajectories of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Before, During, and After Military Deployment in Afghanistan
Dorthe Berntsen, Kim B. Johannessen, Yvonne D. Thomsen, Mette Bertelsen, Rick H. Hoyle and David C. Rubin
In the study reported here, we examined posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in 746 Danish soldiers measured on five occasions before, during, and after deployment to Afghanistan. Using latent class growth analysis, we identified six trajectories of change in PTSD symptoms. Two resilient trajectories had low levels across all five times, and a new-onset trajectory started low and showed a marked increase of PTSD symptoms. Three temporary-benefit trajectories, not previously described in the literature, showed decreases in PTSD symptoms during (or immediately after) deployment, followed by increases after return from deployment. Predeployment emotional problems and predeployment traumas, especially childhood adversities, were predictors for inclusion in the nonresilient trajectories, whereas deployment-related stress was not.
These findings challenge standard views of PTSD in two ways. First, they show that factors other than immediately preceding stressors are critical for PTSD development, with childhood adversities being central. Second, they demonstrate that the development of PTSD symptoms shows heterogeneity, which indicates the need for multiple measurements to understand PTSD and identify people in need of treatment.