Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: When is an experience traumatic?

In Brief

When is an experience traumatic?

One of the few psychiatric disorders that has a known cause is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The symptoms occur after witnessing or experiencing events that involve actual or threatened death or serious injury and inspire intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

A new study suggests that we can't rely on memory for evidence of such experiences. Researchers interviewed 342 inhabitants of Zürich, Switzerland, in 1993 and again in 1999. The participants were a representative sample of the population in their mid-30s. In both years, about one-third recalled a potentially traumatic event. But in 1999, 33% mentioned for the first time an event they said had occurred before 1993. And of those who reported a traumatic event in 1993, 40% did not mention it in 1999.

The inconsistent reporters did not show any special characteristics on personality tests, but they had higher self-esteem than the others. Consistent reporters were more likely to say that they had been assaulted or molested, more likely to recall intense fear or helplessness, and more likely to have symptoms of PTSD. Men were more likely than women to report a traumatic experience in 1999 that they hadn't mentioned in 1993.

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