What Factors Are Associated With Risk-Taking Behavior in PTSD?

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Risk-taking behavior refers to the tendency to engage in activities that have the potential to be harmful or dangerous.

Why People Take Part in Risk-Taking Behavior

Given that risk-taking behavior is potentially dangerous, some people wonder why anyone would take part. On one hand, the behavior puts those who engage in it in harm's way; on the other, it gives participants the chance to experience an outcome they perceive as positive.

Risk-taking behaviors such as driving fast or substance use, for example, may lead to car accidents or overdoses, respectively. In the moment, however, they may bring about positive feelings such as the thrill of a fast ride or the high one gets from drug use.

Examples of Risk-Taking Behavior

Risk-taking behavior can also include having sex with strangers, often with no protection against sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies. Risk-takers may also enjoy gambling, typically losing more than they can handle. These individuals may take part in extreme sports or recreational activities.

Even when risk-takers engage in widely practiced behaviors, such as drinking or smoking cigarettes, they put their lives at risk, as deaths associated with these behaviors are higher than deaths associated with illicit drug use. But risk-takers tend to ignore the consequences of their behaviors.

Who's at Risk for Risk-Taking Behavior?

Some research indicates that men tend to be more likely to be risk-takers than women. But both male and female risk-takers share the same personality traits, such as impulsive sensation-seeking, aggression-hostility, and sociability, one study found.

Genetics play a role in risk-taking behavior as well. Identical twins separated at birth, for example, tend to engage in risk-taking behaviors at high rates. Testosterone appears to play a role as well, which is why there's a gender imbalance in the people most likely to take part in risk-taking behaviors.

A 2012 study of 395 military veterans with PTSD found a link between risk-taking behavior and the disorder. In addition to the above forms of riskiness, vets with PTSD have a propensity for firearms play, potentially endangering their lives. People with PTSD may have already survived dangerous situations, and risk-taking behavior may give them the feeling that they have more control over their present danger than the danger that led to them developing PTSD.

Getting Help

If you find yourself coping with PTSD by engaging in risky behaviors such as drug abuse, anonymous sex, or gambling, it's time to get help. Risk-taking behavior may cause you bodily harm, result in you contracting a sexually transmitted infection, or lead to financial losses that you can't recover from without some heavy lifting. 

It's unwise to toy with your wellbeing in this way. A psychotherapist with experience treating patients with PTSD may help. You can also find a support group for people with PTSD or confide in a close friend or family member who can try to hold you accountable when you feel the urge to engage in risky behaviors. 

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