Embattled childhoods may be the real trauma for soldiers with PTSD

November 19, 2012, Association for Psychological Science

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.

Psychological scientist Dorthe Berntsen of Aarhus University in Denmark and a team of Danish and American researchers wanted to understand why some develop PTSD but others don't. They also wanted to develop a clearer understanding of how the of the disorder progress.

"Most studies on PTSD in soldiers following service in 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 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.

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, , and spousal abuse.

During their deployment, the soldiers completed measures related to the direct experience of war: perceptions of war zone stress, actual life-threatening , battlefield wounds, and the experience of actually killing an enemy.

The researchers continued to follow the soldiers after their return home to Denmark, assessing them a couple weeks after their return, two to four months after their return, and seven to eight months after their return.

What Berntsen and her colleagues found challenges several widely held assumptions about the nature of PTSD.

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. 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 , 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.

According to Berntsen and colleages, all of these factors together suggest that army life - despite the fact that it involved combat – offered more in the way of social support and life satisfaction than these particular soldiers had at home. The mental health benefits of being valued and experiencing camaraderie thus diminished when the soldiers had to return to civilian life.

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."

Explore further: Letters from home may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in happily married soldiers

Related Stories

Letters from home may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder in happily married soldiers

June 3, 2011
A new study from the Journal of Traumatic Stress finds that for active-duty male soldiers in the U.S. Army who are happily married, communicating frequently with one's spouse through letters and emails during deployment may ...

War is not necessarily the cause of post-traumatic stress disorder

August 17, 2012
Recent research carried out at Business and Social Sciences, Aarhus University, shows that surprisingly, the majority of soldiers exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome were suffering from poor mental health ...

Vets' readjustment issues may spur PTSD treatment

September 6, 2012
(HealthDay)—The stress of readjusting to civilian life is a major reason some U.S. soldiers seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a new study finds.

Recommended for you

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

Study suggests people dislike you more for humblebragging than for regular boasting

January 12, 2018
A team of researchers from Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill has conducted a study regarding humblebragging—in which a person boasts about an achievement but tries to make it sound less boastful by minimizing it—and ...

Can writing your 'to-do's' help you to doze? Study suggests jotting down tasks can speed the trip to dreamland

January 11, 2018
Writing a "to-do" list at bedtime may aid in falling asleep, according to a Baylor University study. Research compared sleep patterns of participants who took five minutes to write down upcoming duties versus participants ...

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Tamper-resistant oxycodone tablets have no impact on overall opioid use

January 11, 2018
The introduction of tamper-resistant opioid tablets does not have an effect on rates of opioid use or harms at a population level, according to a new study led by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) at UNSW ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.