Post-traumatic stress disorder is something many people associate with soldiers, or with someone who has been the victim of a violent crime. However, any traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, can cause PTSD symptoms. PTSD is an exaggeration and extension of the body’s and mind’s typical—and normally healthy and beneficial—response to the perception of being in danger.
Any danger can be behind this heightened response in someone who is already prone to it. There is a genetic component to a person’s tendency to develop post-traumatic stress. In fact, new research points to the existence of genetic memories. Some traumatic experiences, the scientists learned, result in changes to DNA that are passed down to future generations. These inherited anxieties and fears are associated with the response to trauma.
Neurochemistry and the structure of the brain also plays a role. A part of the brain called the amygdala plays an important role in acquiring fear and also comes into play in unlearning fears. Different people have different amygdalar responses to the same stimulus. The way the amygdala responds to stressful situations is the difference between developing post-traumatic stress and not. However, the differences are in the range of stresses leading to PTSD—sufficient stress will lead to the condition even in low-susceptibility people.
That is why prevention is important even in people who give no indication of being susceptible but who have experienced trauma. Anti-stress and anti-anxiety medications, for example, can help prevent trauma from leading to long-term disorder or reduce the severity. Drugs called alpha-adrenergic agonists and beta blockers lower stress symptoms and the feeling of stress, while other types of medication, called glucocorticoids, interact directly with the stress hormone cortisol. A type of antihistamine was recently found to have the important property of selectively preventing negative memories from forming, while neutral and positive memories were unaffected. Administered after a traumatic event, this drug may be able to help reduce the response, and the stress.