Why PTSD Increases Your Risk of Having a Stroke

Traumatic events and the agonizing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that often plagues individuals who have suffered horrific life incidents can have a surprising long-term impact on wellbeing and health. A number of scientific research studies done in different locations around the world and among diverse populations have shown the same surprising result—that living through traumatic life events or experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder increases the risk of stroke.

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What Are Traumatic Events?

The types of traumatic incidents included in the study did not include the kinds of upsetting events that almost everyone experiences—such as being fired from a job or being dumped in a romantic relationship, but rather, included cataclysmic occurrences that are not considered routine life stresses, such as earthquakes, violent military combat, child abuse, and sexual attacks.

PTSD, Trauma, and Stroke

A Taiwanese research study followed 5,217 people with PTSD and over 20.000 age-matched controls without PTSD for over 8 years. Participants who had PTSD had a higher incidence of ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke during the 8-year period.

Another investigation carried out by researchers from Columbia University and Harvard University followed almost 50,000 women for over 20 years. Participants were questioned about traumatic life experiences and PTSD symptoms using questionnaires. Results of the research showed that traumatic life experiences or PTSD symptoms or a combination of both significantly increased the risk of strokes and heart attacks among the women in the study.

Why Does PTSD Increase Stroke Risk?

Severe emotional distress takes a toll on your body and changes your day-to-day behavior. Stress produces physiological changes that cause heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and cerebrovascular disease—all of which are well-established stroke risk factors.

Unhealthy lifestyle habits that trauma victims often turn to as a means of self- medicating to escape emotional distress include overeating, anger, drinking, smoking, and drug use- all of which have been proven to cause a stroke. Research reveals that some of the PTSD and trauma-related increase in stroke risk is caused by survivors’ health behaviors.

Another reason that trauma and PTSD contribute to stroke risk is that extreme stress and PTSD induce the same biochemical changes that cause stroke damage in the brain- including the release of bodily toxins and oxidative stress.

Different Responses to Trauma Affect Stroke Risk

These studies do provide a possible clue that can help along the path to recovery. Interestingly, women who faced severe trauma and reported 1-3 PTSD symptoms did not have an increased incidence of stroke, while women who lived through trauma and reported no PTSD symptoms or who reported 4 or more PTSD symptoms experienced the increased stroke rate.

Trauma survivors who did not report any signs of PTSD had a higher risk of stroke than trauma survivors who reported a few signs of PTSD. This suggests that admitting that there is a problem is better than denying that there is an emotional aftermath of trauma.

At the same time, trauma survivors who reported more than 4 symptoms of PTSD fared worse, suggesting that taking steps to get help to decrease the burden and the affliction of PTSD might decrease the adverse health ramifications.

Is There a Way out of the Darkness?

Those who live through a war, displacement from home, assault or rape suffer from persistent emotional consequences even after the incident is over. Despite the relentless agony of PTSD, there are resources available to help you deal with haunting thoughts and lingering feelings of torment. Self-destructive behaviors and habits may continue to pull you down after you have endured a cruel traumatic event over which you had no control and which you cannot undo. Some victims need closure through legal action and restitution, while others find that process too painful. But there is a way out of the darkness if you seek professional help.

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  1. Risk of stroke among patients with post-traumatic stress disorder: nationwide longitudinal study, Chen MH, Pan TL, Li CT, Lin WC, Chen YS, Lee YC, Tsai SJ, Hsu JW, Huang KL, Tsai CF1, Chang WH, Chen TJ, Su TP, Bai YM, The British Journal of Psychiatry, April 2015

  2. Trauma Exposure and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Predict Onset of Cardiovascular Events in Women, Sumner JA, Kubzansky LD, Elkind MS, Roberts AL, Agnew-Blais J, Chen Q, Cerdá M, Rexrode KM, Rich-Edwards JW, Spiegelman D, Suglia SF, Rimm EB, Koenen KC, Circulation, June 2015

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