Study: Exposure to Violence Can Trigger PTSD Symptoms

Women from Impoverished Neighborhoods at Higher Risk

A new study reveals a possible link between African-American women who live in impoverished neighborhoods and the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

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The 72 women involved in the study were originally recruited to participate in a Northwestern Medicine study that examined the impact of mindfulness-based techniques on reducing stress and symptoms of depression. But researchers noticed that “PTSD and trauma were extremely prevalent,” said the study’s senior author Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Given the prevalence of PTSD symptoms, researchers took a closer look at the data and conducted a secondary analysis. 

The women were recruited from a federally qualified health center on the city's South Side that primarily serves low-income individuals. At the time of the study, the area was ranked seventh for property crime, 26th for quality of life crime (such as prostitution) and 35th for violent crime among the city’s 77 neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Tribune. Living in the community where the center was located (Oakland) was not a requirement of the study.

Researchers found that more than half of the women reported experiencing a traumatic event that was often violent or sexual in nature. One woman reported watching her son shot more than 10 times. He died as a result. Another said she witnessed her father being killed, according to the report.

Three women were so overcome by emotion that they couldn’t begin to share or finish sharing details about the traumas they experienced. Those intense emotions sparked by thinking about the traumatic event are a telltale sign of PTSD.

In order to be diagnosed with the disorder, a person has to have experienced a real or perceived life-threatening event and re-experience that event through, for example, nightmares or hypervigilance to the surrounding environment, Burnett-Zeigler said.

“Numbness, irritability and anxiousness are also key features of PTSD,” she added. Another marker of the condition is avoidance of stimuli related to the trauma. For example, if an attack occurred in a certain neighborhood, the victim may avoid that neighborhood or take an alternative route.

“I’ve had patients that have had traumatic experiences and thrown out the clothes they had on that particular day,” she said.

Researchers discovered that 71 percent of the women developed symptoms of PTSD following such traumatic incidents. Comparatively, 20 percent of women in a general population who experienced trauma develop PTSD symptoms.

Given the exposure to violence in the community, Burnett-Zeigler said it’s not surprising that the incidence of PTSD symptoms was higher than the general population.

“It’s unexpected in the sense that we didn’t necessarily recruit based on trauma, and so to see that kind of unfold naturally really spoke to how prevalent it was among women that are dealing with depression and stress coming in for regular health care visits,” she said.

Based on the results, Burnett-Zeigler says health care providers should assess for trauma, especially in patients from vulnerable communities.

“As it applies to overall health, the first step would be asking people if they’ve had a traumatic experience and if they had any ongoing distress related to that experience,” she said. “That would be a potential way to start the screening process to see if a more in-depth assessment and evaluation are needed and additional services related to that.”

Follow Kristen Thometz on Twitter: @kristenthometz

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