Changes in the function of the nervous system help explain the adult onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in teenage girls who witness parental acts of aggression, researchers from the State University of New York at Albany report.
Only a minority of people exposed to highly dangerous or potentially lethal situations will ultimately develop diagnosable symptoms of PTSD. Doctors and researchers don’t fully understand all of the variables that make some people susceptible to the disorder. In a study scheduled for publication in March 2015 in the journal Physiology & Behavior, researchers from SUNY Albany assessed the role that changes in the body’s automatic nervous responses have on the odds that a teenage girl with aggressive or violent parents will meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis as a young adult.
PTSD And Teenagers
Like adults, teenagers and younger children can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of exposure to events and situations that include natural disasters, acts of terror, major illnesses, major accidents, physical assaults and sexual assaults. Also like adults, teens and younger children can develop symptoms of the disorder if they witness relatives or loved ones exposed to highly traumatic circumstances or otherwise witness highly dangerous or lethal events in their local environment.
Roughly 3 percent to 15 percent of all teenage girls and younger girls will develop PTSD symptoms after direct or indirect trauma exposure, the National Center for PTSD notes. Teenage boys and younger boys exposed to trauma have a lower PTSD development rate of 1 percent to 6 percent. (Interestingly, teenagers and younger children of both genders have smaller chances of developing post-traumatic stress than adult men and women.) Risk factors that increase the odds for the onset of the condition in adolescents and children include being exposed to severe forms of trauma, being especially close to a traumatic event and having a parent who reacts badly to trauma exposure. Generally speaking, the number of symptoms present in the individual increase along with the number of risk factors involved. However, parental support may substantially lessen the impact of emotional trauma.
The Involuntary Nervous System
The involuntary nervous system is the part of the human nervous system that does its job without any conscious input from the individual. Scientists also use the term autonomic nervous system to describe the same network. Processes under control of your involuntary nervous system include your heartbeat, your breathing and the basic function of all other essential organs and organ systems. One part of the involuntary network, called the parasympathetic nervous system, has control over ordinary, daily organ functions. Another part of the network, called the sympathetic nervous system, takes over when the body needs to activate its built-in “fight-or-flight” response in dangerous or highly stressful situations.
Parental Aggression Exposure And PTSD
In the study published in Physiology & Behavior, the SUNY Albany researchers used a project involving a group of young adults to determine if changes in the normal function of the involuntary nervous system help explain the presence of PTSD in young adults who witnessed parental acts of aggression during adolescence. Specifically, they wanted to know what happens when the parasympathetic nervous system undergoes significant functional change. The marker of change in this system was alteration of the normal heartbeat during breathing. All human beings experience some change in their heartbeats while inhaling or exhaling; however, some people experience greater degrees of change than others.
For each individual enrolled in the study, the researchers took a baseline reading of the heartbeat changes associated with breathing. In addition, they asked each participant questions designed to draw out details of his or her level of exposure to parent-to-parent acts of aggression during adolescence, as well as details of the relative harshness of his or her parents’ parenting techniques. After completing an analysis of the gathered data, the researchers concluded that teenage girls exposed to parent-to-parent aggression and relatively harsh parenting styles have significantly increased chances of developing PTSD as young adults if they also experience significant change in their normal heartbeats while breathing. However, the researchers did not find the same connection between PTSD, adolescent exposure to parent-to-parent aggression and breathing-associated heartbeat changes in young adult men.
The study’s authors believe their findings indicate that, among young adult women, the amount of heartbeat change associated with basic breathing may be a major factor in the link between witnessing parental aggression as a teenager and developing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at a later date.
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