What Causes Different Traumatic Responses to Similar Events?

Hurricane Sandy caused a wide path of destruction and devastation. Many people who survived the hurricane experienced significant losses, including loss of possessions, homes, and livelihood. Some even lost loved ones in the disaster. However, not everyone who survived the hurricane will develop posttraumatic stress (PTSD). Disasters can be man-made, such as terrorist attacks, or natural, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. Other types of disasters that can cause extreme traumatic responses include accidents that result in death or injury. Understanding what factors contribute to PTSD, and why some people develop PTSD after a disaster and others don’t, will help clinicians better identify those most at risk for negative mental health outcomes.

To explore this topic further, Carol S. North of the Department of Psychiatry and Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center recently conducted an exhaustive study of existing research gathered from 10 disasters. The participants included 811 survivors of disasters of different types. North reviewed demographic factors and exposure factors and discovered that the type of the disaster was not predictive of PTSD, but age, sex, and other elements were. “Even individuals exposed to the same disasters were found to differ markedly in outcomes, and disasters of the same type varied considerably in associated mental health effects,” she said. Specifically, being female, young, and Hispanic predicted PTSD. Also, the less-educated individuals who had witnessed a death or an injury were more likely to develop PTSD than those who had not. Another strong indicator of PTSD was the presence of a preexisting mental health condition. The participants who responded to the disaster by numbing or avoiding were also more vulnerable to symptoms of PTSD.

Overall, the majority of the survivors, two-thirds, did not develop any psychological problems as a result of the disaster. Of those who did, the most common was PTSD, followed closely by depression. Although it has been suggested that substance misuse increases after a disaster, it was not evidenced in this study. North did discover, however, that numbing and avoiding emerged as one of the strongest predictors of PTSD, but was present in only one-fourth of the survivors. In sum, the results demonstrate that it is not the disaster itself that predicts mental health outcomes, but the unique aspect of each individual’s exposure, demographic make-up, and mental health status.

North, Carol S., Julianne Oliver, and Anand Pandya. Examining a comprehensive model of disaster-related posttraumatic stress disorder in systematically studied survivors of 10 disasters. American Journal of Public Health 102.10 (2012): 40-48. Print.

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  • Grace peterson

    Grace peterson

    November 19th, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    I guess that there are some who are simply predisposed to developing some sort of traumatic response after an event like this, whereas others are far more likely to handle it a little better. The fact is that all of us are hard wired a little differently than the next so I guess this is not as uncommon as you would initially think it would be.

  • jake


    November 19th, 2012 at 3:41 PM

    it’s true that what’s in our mind already affects how we see things.and hence some people will always be more prone to being more severely than others by the same events.same reason why some people are able to better emember events and occurances than others.more than anything,our past somewhat dictates out future.

  • sinni


    November 20th, 2012 at 4:03 AM

    There are a wealth of possibilties for why certain people react one way to one thing and then others react another.
    We all have different emotional reactions and connections to so many things in this world. It would be pretty boring if there was never any kinds of ways that shook things up just a little bit.
    I am being a little facetious there but I think that you get my drift. We are al different- why would you not have a different response than the guy next door?
    A lot of it coud come via where you are in your personal life at that time and how this emotionally effects you as you deal with other new issues.

  • Q.Z


    November 20th, 2012 at 2:11 PM

    I like to think f it this way-
    Everything we are and we experience becomes stored in our minds.And whenever there is a new input,like an event mentioned here,that ‘reacts’ as in a chemical reaction with what’s already in our brain and the end product is our feeling of the situation or event.

    Now everybody has different things stored there so the end product would differ although the event is the same. For some people the traumatic effects could be more enhanced than others.and for some people seemingly simple events may trigger panic or anxiety.every person is different and we are everything we pick up throughout our journey of life.

  • margaret rodey

    margaret rodey

    November 24th, 2012 at 10:06 AM

    I think now, the rape I went through in the Air Force and how I told the guys I worked around about this one cop threatening me and how they reacted to it, brought me to react the way they wanted because they didn’t know how to or care if someone was threatening me as long as it wasn’t them and that made me think about it wrong after it happened as it caused me to have PTSD and depression due to numbing and avoidance issues as that is what the guys I worked with told me to deal with it just get oon with work and the bad things will go away, yeah fucking right

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