Childhood Trauma As A “Profound” Predictor of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome

A study of police recruits found that a history of childhood trauma along with certain genetic factors could predict whether a person would develop Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome after working as a police officer. Childhood trauma is a "profound" predictor of the syndrome, according to the authors.

Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS) affects about 10% of the population every year. It develops after a person experiences a life-threatening event, and can include debilitating symptoms such as flashbacks to the event, nightmares, problems in anger management, anxiety, hypervigilance, and depression.

Dr. Charles Marmar, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center, studied 400 police recruits from San Francisco and New York City over a period of eight years. About one in four had experienced trauma, such as exposure to violence, automobile accidents, sexual abuse, and so forth, although none of the recruits had ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness. When Dr. Marmar’s team exposed the recruits to videos of real life, dangerous police situations, the ones with the history of early childhood trauma showed significantly different and more intense physical reactions when they viewed the movies.

"So in young, healthy recruits with no current psychiatric illness, the endocrine response is already upregulated if they have a history of childhood trauma," Dr. Marmar said.

When the recruits became officers, they typically experienced one life-threatening event every four months. Four years later, the ones with family histories of anxiety, mood disorders, or substance abuse were at higher risk for posttraumatic stress syndrome (PTSS), and Dr. Marmar attributed this to genetic factors. Those recruits who shared both genetic vulnerability and a history of childhood trauma were the ones most likely to develop the syndrome.

Dr. Marmar reported that 75% of the recruits showed little or no PTSS symptoms at any time during their first four years of service. Of the remaining 25%, about 16% showed a linear growth of PTSS symptoms every year during their police service. The others in the 25% group did experience some symptoms, but they were able to accommodate for them and the symptoms did not grow worse over time.

Dr. Marmar believes that this kind of research could ultimately develop screening tools that would predict those who are most likely to develop PTSS in stressful occupations such as police work or combat duty in the armed services.

"I think the view is that this kind of information could be used not to exclude people from service but to provide resilience-building training and/or to triage people into different roles," Dr. Marmar said.

The study was presented at the Anxiety Disorders Association of America’s Third Annual Conference.