Does IQ Influence Risk or Severity of PTSD?

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.

Reference:
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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  • Sampson

    Sampson

    June 27th, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    Naturally when I first read the header I thought oh yeah, those with a higher IQ might experience PTSD a little stronger.
    Imagine my surprise that it is not the folks with the higher IQs but those with lower ones who could feel PTSD more deeply.
    But after reading the point about maybe it having to do with a lessened ability to maintain emotional regulation I can kind of understand that. I just hope that just knowing this though won’t set someone up for that.

  • Brian

    Brian

    June 28th, 2013 at 4:07 AM

    Have to ask- do you really think that it is that little bit of differentiation in IQ points or does it have more to do with the severaity of the event that happened to you?

  • Me

    Me

    June 28th, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I, having PTSD and an IQ of 135 argues the results of this study. I suggest this study is more garbage and lacking in understanding of what really happens in those that develop PTSD.

    For starters, using the IQ of 6 year olds as any standard to measure what happens to them at 17 shows a severe ignorance of a widely known and recognized common factor: children develop at different rates. This would include intelligence.

  • kaden

    kaden

    June 29th, 2013 at 1:23 AM

    I dont think this would be a very reliable finding.You may be an Einstein but a traumatic event could still shake you.It has to do more with the event and its severity than with anything else.

  • un-named

    un-named

    June 29th, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    Umm …. I’ve always scored high on IQ tests … like borderline genius depending on how well I can focus when I take the test….. I have always tested high on these tests, but yet have a diagnosis of PTSD …. I don’t believe it has anything to do with one’s ability to learn, but rather how the incident that caused them to have PTSD was handled or ignored …. I would be curious to find out if the researchers factored in things like head injuries, mental health issues many of which have genetic ties, or if they just did a blanket one size fits all guess?

  • Imelda

    Imelda

    February 12th, 2017 at 7:50 AM

    A psychiatrist told a friend of mine that few of the people that are treated for various disorders have low IQ, i think the more complex the mind the more complex the trauma.

  • Riverjail Runaway

    Riverjail Runaway

    June 26th, 2014 at 1:55 PM

    Interesting conclusions but ultimately rather inconclusive. Think about it from this perspective, if someone has a higher IQ wouldn’t they better be able to trick people into thinking nothing was wrong?

    I did this. So I know it is possible, so I am inclined to believe that others with high IQ have tricked their therapists and surveyors in the past to believe that they were “alright” because they didn’t want these people to ask invading questions.

    I had things that traumatized me as a child at the age of six. I easily cleared therapy with a diagnosis of good mental stability and health along with gifted intelligence. I went on to have a very successful childhood, consistently manipulating those around me into believing that I was happy and that nothing was wrong.

    Finally, during college as I got frustrated with the level to which I became distracted I finally entered a multiyear long hunt for what was wrong and eventually after 3 or 4 misdiagnosis and about half a dozen therapists I am finally getting better, once I found a therapist who could process what I could spit out at a speed which allowed her to actually give me helpful feedback.

    Of course, I must add that my high intelligence has probably been the godsend during this process. I’m flying through it faster than my doc expected and I often anticipate what she has in store before she has told me. :)

    I also have a personality which predispositions me to PTSD so that could play into it as well… (INTP for MBTIdiots like me, hehe)

    And for the curious, I have never known I was taking an IQ test, but when I was a stoner and an alcoholic between freshman and sophomore year of college I tested for ADHD beccause I wanted a legal stimulant (Why lie?) and unbeknownst to me I scored a 117 on some type of IQ test. I must add though, that I didn’t sleep for 36 hours before the test because I was anxious. Not for lack of trying, in bed for hours, but in the past I’ve unfortunately had nights of brutal anxiety induced insomnia (PTSD caused most likely) and I think this may have brought down my potential a couple points…

    Now I’ve rambled enough… Hopefully I’ve helped some people view this article in a more insightful light.

  • KC

    KC

    May 15th, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    Perhaps we should look more closely at the link between HSP (highly sensitive person)…which tends towards high intelligence and high creativity…and how that correlates to PTSD susceptibiliy. PTSD prevelance and high intelligence might be strikingly intertwined in that capacity. I too have a high IQ and have PTSD from repeated childhood trauma. I’ve also read other studies which could suggest the exact opposite of what this study concluded. I’m taking their conclusion with a “grain of salt.”

  • Trina

    Trina

    July 2nd, 2015 at 12:13 AM

    I agree with you… I also have a high IQ as well as PTSD. I’m trying to find out the best way to move forward, and in all of my research I’m finding all kinds of conflicting research! I am also a HSP- i was thinking the same thing as you as I read your response to this whole idea, and supposed “findings”… It feels like somebody’s missing something, or didn’t think to do something important. Something does not add up.

  • MB

    MB

    August 27th, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    This article isn’t really saying if your dumb you get PTSD. IQ fluctuates a lot throughout your life. 30+ points at times, and can be just for a few days or weeks, to a couple years. There are so many things that influence your IQ, and it’s not really an intelligence score the way most people think of it. It’s basically a gauge of how quickly and efficiently at the time of the test you are processing and evaluating information. Take an IQ test after you’ve been sick (especially something with enough nausea to make you not want to eat or something that keeps you up at night like a bad cough), or after a really mundane but stressful time where you had to give up extra things like creative hobbies or time to read regularly, and you will find that your IQ score drops a lot. If a traumatic event happens when you’re in a low like that you are basically getting hit when your brain’s defenses are down.

  • tardi

    tardi

    November 2nd, 2017 at 1:01 PM

    Problem is that this kind of study does not take in account the gifted who did suicide after adversity: and there could be a lot. And also there is a major angle: the kids knew they were gifted at 6. Which can change the course of a life very deeply.

  • thatgirl

    thatgirl

    December 26th, 2017 at 1:23 AM

    Hogwash.

    This article and the study it cites are definite cases of putting the cart before the horse. First, the article itself states this is still theoretical, but later claims “these findings clearly demonstrate a link between IQ and resiliency/vulnerability.” Can’t have it both ways, and certainly not based on a single study whose findings have yet to be reproduced.

    Second, it’s been proven that trauma alters the brain not just chemically and functionally, but anatomically as well. The pre-frontal cortex and all of its executive processing is impaired by trauma anywhere from the short term to the long term. For Ms Breslau to test the undeveloped brains of 6-year-olds who have already endured brain-altering trauma is decidedly poor science. What kind of recovery time were they allowed? How can every case of “assaultive trauma” have equal value when there are endless forms it can take? Get back to me once you’ve added context, like whether the subjects received support of any kind, had co-morbidities like ADHD, or were being raised in a dysfunctional setting– mental health issues, alcoholism, absentee parent, foster system, etc. That’s after you perfect the science of measuring, ranking and comparing trauma, and one person’s pain, grief, fear, to another’s. Oh, and this time, you might want to try testing *full-grown adults*.

    Third, as MB pointed out, IQ fluctuates for multiple reasons. And to boot it’s now widely accepted that IQ tests are myopic and misleading, yet we measure our self-worth and potential by them.
    So a poorly thought-out (and offensive) study based on a poorly thought-out (and destructive) method of intelligence testing is destructive at best, and a clear step backwards. God knows how many people now have not only trauma on their hands, but poisoned self-esteem and a guilty sense of failure to go along with it. Thanks for promoting insensitive misinformation with this article. Well done.

  • kik

    kik

    October 8th, 2018 at 5:32 AM

    I wonder, if a doctor gets PTSD, does it means that the doctor have lower IQ?

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