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.

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