Intellectual Resources May Prevent Soldiers from Developing PTSD

A study on Vietnam War veterans suggests that intellectual resources may help soldiers deflect posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after warfare. These findings appeared in the Neuropsychology journal, an American Psychological Association publication.

PTSD is a distressing and often disabling anxiety disorder triggered by exposure to severe psychological trauma, like combat, abuse, torture, natural disaster, or accident. A person with this condition characteristically re-experiences the trauma and avoids reminders of that trauma. He or she may also experience emotional numbing and increased arousal symptoms such as exaggerated startle response and sleep disturbance.

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study estimates that about 30.9% of male and 26.9% of female Vietnam War veterans met the condition for lifetime PTSD at some point in their lives. These rates are much higher than the general population. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the general population has been approximated at somewhere between 1% and 14%. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 5.2 million American ages 18 to 54 have PTSD.

The study was led by Jennifer J. Vasterling of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Orleans, Tulane University School of Medicine and Louisiana State University School of Medicine. The six-person team compared the pre-Vietnam IQ and neurocognitive performance of 26 veterans with PTSD and 21 veterans without any mental disorder.

Vasterling and colleagues found that, while the extent of combat was the most significant predictor of the severity of PTSD, the estimated pre-Vietnam intellectual resources appeared to help veterans avoid getting PTSD. The researchers suggest that veterans with greater intellectual resources before combat were considerably less likely to develop PTSD. For those veterans who developed PTSD after combat, their greater intellectual resources helped them stave off severe symptoms.

The researchers hypothesize that greater intellectual resources may protect one against psychopathology in various mechanisms. For instance, more advanced verbal skills may help soldiers to "talk out and make sense of their experience," said Vasterling. Language can help soldiers to effectively process extreme memories and feelings. The study suggests that verbal skills may also be helpful in establishing complex networks for social support.

It also suggests that greater occupational achievement, educational attainment, and other higher socioeconomic levels also help a person lessen stress impact. The findings in the study support today’s neurobiological models of PTSD, which view severe stress as impacting certain brain areas and arousal mechanisms.

Based on the findings, Vasterling suggests that "preventive training in a broad range of coping skills would be beneficial. In addition, cognitive rehabilitation can be structured to capitalize on people’s internal strengths…to help them circumvent their weaknesses, such as difficulty concentrating or remembering."