Most people have experienced trauma at some point in time. The nature of traumatic experiences varies by severity and frequency and also differs with respect to the effect they have on survivors. Some people who have experienced violence, abuse, or disaster develop significant psychological problems and posttraumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of the trauma, while others appear to be more resilient and rebound with very few psychological problems.
Predisposition to mental health issues and stress sensitivity are two factors that have been theorized to affect risk for PTSD in trauma victims. But another factor that is less understood in relation to PTSD is intelligence. Intelligence quotient (IQ) can impact emotional regulation and reactivity and, therefore, it could be assumed that people with higher IQs may be more resilient to trauma.
To test this theory, Naomi Breslau of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University recently led a study involving 713 17-year olds. The participants were assessed for trauma history, type of trauma classified as assaultive trauma (sexual trauma, rape, life threatening trauma), or general trauma (accident, illness, disaster) and IQ taken at age 6. Breslau used this information to see how these factors affected PTSD at age 17.
She found that surprisingly, individuals of assaultive trauma were not more likely to develop PTSD than those of general trauma. However, Breslau did find a link between IQ and PTSD. “A drop of one standard deviation in IQ score measured at age 6 increased the relative risk ratio of PTSD resulting from either trauma type by approximately 50%,” she said.
This result can be interpreted in several ways. First, individuals with a lower IQ may be less able to regulate emotional reactions and thus be more vulnerable to PTSD. Second, making meaning of trauma and assigning context to a traumatic event may be easier for people with high intelligence. This can protect people from negative emotional responses and triggers, and decrease their vulnerability to negative mental health outcomes like PTSD. Although these findings clearly demonstrate a link between IQ and resiliency/vulnerability, more work should be done to determine how this link impacts younger and older individuals.
Breslau, N., Chen, Q., Luo, Z. (2013). The role of intelligence in posttraumatic stress disorder: Does it vary by trauma severity? PLoS ONE 8(6): e65391. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065391
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