Shame may worsen PTSD symptoms in military veterans

Feelings of shame may worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in former or current armed services members, a new study found.

PTSD, an anxiety disorder, is characterized in the DSM-5 as recurrent distressing thoughts or behavior that are triggered by traumatic events.

According to research, published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology, a total of 61 participants, all US armed service members, were questioned using an online survey by Qualtrics rating their PTSD symptoms, including feelings of shame and guilt. The study took place at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have sparked massive attention on PTSD and how it affects the psychological well-being of soldiers, Dr. Katherine Cunningham, the lead researcher of the study, suggested.

“Many returning service members and veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD, which is associated with poorer physical health, unemployment, legal problems, relationship conflict and reduced quality of life,” Dr. Cunningham proclaimed.

In the study, Dr. Cunningham and her team of researchers uncovered that both shame and guilt were predicting indicators of diagnosing PTSD in veterans. Trauma-related shame was observed significantly higher, compared to trauma-related guilt, based on the findings.

“Results from relative weights analysis indicated that both shame and guilt predicted PTSD, jointly accounting for 46% of the variance in PTSD. Compared to guilt, trauma-related shame accounted for significantly more explained variance in PTSD,” the study reads.

However, as previous studies have suggested, when researchers added shame to the regression model, guilt no longer played a role in triggering symptoms of PTSD. Both play different roles in PTSD symptoms.

Moreover, researchers also concluded that trauma-related shame might cause social withdraw in veterans to avoid criticism, meanwhile, trauma-related guilt has the opposite effect, resulting in more pro-social behavior with others.

Although the findings provide a deeper look into the unique roles of shame and guilt, more research is needed to further dive into distinguishing and measuring trauma-related emotions.

“Comparison between trait-based and trauma-specific shame and guilt would also help elucidate the proposal that trauma-specific emotions may be unique and/or more intense than their general trait-based experience,” the study concluded.

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