Strong Social Bonds Can Lessen PTSD Severity in Susceptible Individuals

Group of men sitting side by side and talking happily

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study suggests that social bonds and interactions may have an impact on the negative effects of PTSD.
  • Interpersonal therapy could be a solution for impacted or at-risk individuals.

A 2020 study published in Biological Psychiatry focuses on the effects that attachment styles and personal relationships have on the genetic risk factors of military veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These findings may help inform additional treatment options for veterans and other individuals dealing with this disorder. Researchers say this data could aid in creating and implementing preventative measures for veterans who have been deemed at-risk for PTSD.

Mapping Veteran Genomes

In conducting this study, saliva was collected from 2030 European-American U.S. military veterans in order to map their genomes—which looks at the location of genes and the distance between them. This allowed researchers to determine additional information about the genes including their polygenic risk score (PRS).

Some individuals may have genetic predispositions to certain conditions, and a PRS indicates how a person’s risk compares to others with varied genetic makeup. Similar to how genes can cause red hair or dimples, genetic makeup can cause a predisposition to certain diseases and dispositions, including PTSD. This study focused on how attachment style interacts with the genes or “risk score” in relation to data collected from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study

Attachment style was assessed using the three-item Adult Attachment Style Questionnaire (ASQ) and PTSD symptoms were assessed both over the participants' lifetimes and over the past month. This was conducted using the PTSD Checklist (PCL) and the Trauma History Screen.

Understanding PTSD

PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a disorder that can occur after someone has lived through a traumatic incident. This can be any type of event that proves extremely stressful, including but not limited to physical violence, wartime experience, or an accident. "While a lot of people know about PTSD from veterans in war, it’s a lot more common than we think and it usually stems from someone who had physical or emotional childhood trauma." says Elizabeth Martin, MSOM, LAc, LMT.

Elizabeth Martin, MSOM, LAC, LMT

While a lot of people know about PTSD from veterans in war, it’s a lot more common than we think and it usually stems from someone who had physical or emotional childhood trauma.

— Elizabeth Martin, MSOM, LAC, LMT

Effects of this condition include:

  • Frequent upsetting thoughts or memories of a traumatic event.
  • Having recurrent nightmares
  • Feeling as though the event were happening again, sometimes called a flashback
  • Strong feelings of distress when reminded of the event
  • Being physically responsive, such as increased heart rate or sweating, when reminded of the event.

Attachment Theory and PTSD

Attachment styles are defined by psychologist John Bowlby as, “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” and are broken down into four categories:

  • Secure
  • Ambivalent
  • Avoidant
  • Disordered 

These were assessed in the context of personal relationships, as there may be a link between them and reactions to stress, potentially serving as a means of protection.

The findings of the new study reveal that heightened levels of this risk score are indeed connected with high levels of PTSD reactivity. This was shown through data connected to how these individuals responded to stress, which could look like any number of reactions that are counterproductive to mental health, including avoidance of feelings altogether.

Because of the nature of PTSD, participants with varied attachment styles showed high levels of reactivity to the disorder. However, because insecure attachment styles are often associated with negative emotional responses during times of stress, the results of the study confirmed that veterans with an insecure attachment style had higher rates of interaction between their risk score and their PTSD symptoms.

Martin has experienced this in her personal life and within her practice. "Those who suffer from PTSD likely have trouble with social interaction. PTSD is internal and you can sometimes self-sabotage yourself. You think a lot of people are going to hurt you. It takes trust within others and yourself, and you want to get to a place where you have radical acceptance. That means we see the reality of an event and we don’t get emotionally charged from an event." 

What This Means For You

While living with the effects of trauma can be difficult, if you are living with PTSD, a mental health professional will be beneficial in gaining and maintaining coping skills through the many available methods out there. It's important to remember that you are not dealing with your situation on your own, and you can choose to nurture the personal relationships you already have, and lean on your friends and family for support.

While there is data to support the assertion that an individual’s genetic composition may play a role in promoting certain dispositions, there are considerations to be made for how to manage the effects of PTSD. Depending on an individual's attachment style, these findings suggest that social bonds may have a positive impact on the effects of PTSD. Interpersonally-oriented treatment methods that focus on cultivating relationships are common for different psychiatric disorders, including social anxiety and PTSD.

10 Sources
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