Trauma May Have Long-term Effects on Stress Response
> 11/24/2007 11:36:34 AM

Experiencing a traumatic event or extreme stress often leads to mental illness, usually post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. A new study, however, illustrates that stress and trauma can change the way our bodies react to stress, even for those who do not develop mental illness as a result.

Researchers from Cornell, led by Dr. Barbara Ganzel, measured cortisol (a stress hormone) levels in saliva and mood in 37 women, none of whom had been previously diagnosed with PTSD or depression. The women were put into groups based on past traumatic experiences: those who had not experienced a trauma, those who had experienced a trauma and had also suffered peritraumatic symptoms (distress experienced during and immediately after a traumatic event), and those who had experienced a trauma but had not suffered peritraumatic symptoms. The researchers examined the women 25 days before and after a stressful event—taking the medical admission test (MCAT)— and found that women who had experienced an earlier trauma accompanied by peritraumatic symptoms had lower cortisol levels both before and after taking the exam. These women also maintained a negative mood after the exam had ended, while women who had not experienced an earlier trauma or peritraumatic symptoms had a negative mood before the exam and a more positive mood afterward.

Cortisol levels normally rise during a stressful event and fall below normal after the stressor has ended, but the researchers theorize that in some cases cortisol levels never return to normal. Another possibility is that for some people, experiencing a traumatic event causes cortisol levels to always fall lower than is normal during later times of stress. Although these women did not develop PTSD or depression after experiencing trauma, the trauma did appear to have lasting effects on the way their bodies react to stress. With further research, we may find even more information on the ways in which stress alters our physical and mental health, even when stress does not result in mental illness.

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