Although everyone is vulnerable to stress and susceptible to Post Trauma Stress, some people are more prone to it than others. Why? Mostly because of their genes. That’s not their fault, and it isn’t anything they can change. Why do some people experience more severe stress reactions than others? While some people do not seem to be affected by prolonged stress after a trauma and return to feeling normal shortly after the stressors abate, depending on the situation and your particular inherited nervous system and brain, you may be more susceptible to stress.
Interestingly, researchers have found that people who have been genetically gifted with the strongest memories are also more vulnerable to PTSD. A recent study by a neuroscientist at the University of Basel, Switzerland, discovered some people have a genetic signature that gives them the ability to form stronger memories. After studying 347 refugees of the Rwandan genocide,researchers found a clear indication that stronger memories were linked to a heightened risk of PTSD, often doubling the risk.
Recent research also indicates that women are more prone than men to develop PTSD, possibly twice as often. Why? At this point we don’t know, although functional MRI studies by Daniel Amen have shown that female brains function differently from men’s brains in certain respects. Also, a woman’s social and cultural environment differs from a man’s. So it would not be surprising that men and women might react differently to stress as well.
The strength and severity of PTSD is also linked to genetic causes. If you have any genetically transmitted mental disorder, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or inherited depression, it can reduce your ability to deal with stress. Although gene variations for stress vulnerability are primarily inherited at conception, researchers are now finding that environmental factors, especially when experienced early in life, can create changes in the body that permanently alter your susceptibility to stress. Thus childhood trauma and/or abuse may have a lasting effect not only on the mind, but also on the DNA.
A study conducted at McGill University in Quebec revealed DNA modifications that made people who were physically and /or sexually abused as children more sensitive to severe stress as they grew up. In certain people, the number of cortical hormone(stress hormone) receptors had actually been reduced. Although the research subjects were studied for abuse only, it is likely that any child growing up under prolonged, severe stress, such as in an alcoholic or violent family or neighborhood, or with a parent suffering from an emotional disorder, may experience similar changes in how he or she reacts to stress as an adult.
Biochemistry also plays a part. Researchers have found that the fetal stress response of a child in the womb is a biochemical reflection of the mother’s stress condition. As a result, children subjected to stress in the womb bear a biochemical tendency to react more strongly to stress in the future. Learning is another important factor in stress susceptibility. As I have mentioned, certain beliefs and values you were taught in the past may affect your perceptions of what happens to you in the present.
If you perceive you are more susceptible to stress than the people around you, remember, you are not at fault. And you are not alone. There are many, many people who may have these same vulnerabilities. Don’t give up. Be cautious with medication, but don’t rule it out. These are physical disorders that often can be successfully treated with a balancing chemical, the way insulin balances diabetes.
From my readings and experience of working with people who have PTSD, I’ve learned that the longer, more severe, or more continuous the stress, or the more frequently it occurs (such as in war), the more likely it will become unmanageable. The person never feels safe, and the mind and body can take only so much stress before they malfunction. Once the person believes he or she is in control over his or her life, the stress fades.
Prolonged stress can lead to the dysregulation of the sympathetic nervous system, which governs bodily functions not under our conscious control (like breathing). If a person is experiencing a constant state of arousal, the nervous system can get stuck in the “on” state. I compare it to a stuck doorbell or a stuck horn on your car. The doorbell and the horn have very useful purposes, but they become irritating and disruptive if they won’t stop. Just so, the “freeze, fight, or flight” response is essential to alert us to and help us escape from danger, but it becomes dysfunctional if it won’t stop after the threat is gone. When this system does not recalibrate to a normal level after the threat stops, PTS or PTSD can occur and the person begins to experience symptoms such as restlessness, nightmares, hyper-vigilance, muscle pain, and headaches.
Research has found that military personnel are predisposed to developing PTSD as a result of their training. Military training is generally geared to shutting down or cutting off thoughts and emotions in a time of crisis. If you are a veteran, you have been taught to react instantaneously when you perceive danger, instead of thinking and then acting. You have been trained to follow a command. You must flip into survival mode and shoot in order to save yourself and others. While this automatic reaction is necessary in combat, it makes life a lot more difficult after you come home. It is not easy to erase your training and relearn to take a moment of thought before you respond to a situation. In the next section I will tell you about a veteran who is now serving a twenty-five year prison term because of this problem.
Other studies indicate that a lack of understanding from others plays a role in the increased likelihood of developing PTS or PTSD. This lack may take the form of people accusing you of feigning your symptoms or failing to understand what you are going through. Perhaps they believe in the old school of “hard knocks” and say or imply that your war trauma is not severe, or is simply a case of bad nerves. They may advise you to “just buck up and get over it.” The more people in your life who downplay or disrespect your experiences, the greater your stress and the more severe your PTS reaction.
In a particularly sad example, some Vietnam veterans came home to members of the public who despised and shamed them for their actions in the service of their country. Certainly this disheartening public reaction may have greatly increased the likelihood of PTSD in some Vietnam veterans. But you may experience a lack of support just as easily from members of your own family or community, no matter which war you fought.
So, yes, there are people who are more vulnerable to stress than others. You can’t control your genetics or your past, but you can learn ways of coping with situations that will lessen their impact considerably and help you return to normal functioning. When you use the strategies I have described in my latest book, How to Cope with Stress after Trauma, you will be able to change your stress level at any time you wish. Eventually you will feel back in control of your mind, emotions, and body, and your symptoms of stress will decrease.