Researchers Probe Link Between PTSD and IQ
This doesn't mean that smart people don't get PTSD.
"Intellectual function is just one small factor that explains a little of the variance among people who suffer trauma," Vasterling says. "The big variable in whether you get PTSD is how bad, how extreme the stressor is. Intelligence is one little thing that might modulate risk. There are people who are really smart with great resources and great family support, but it was just such a bad thing that happened to them that they have PTSD anyway. That is the sad part of the disorder."
PTSD expert Mark I. Levy, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, reviewed the Vasterling study for WebMD. He says that these findings fit with his clinical experience in treating PTSD patients -- and remind him of the writings of Bruno Bettelheim. Bettelheim studied the question of why some survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were able to emerge with fewer psychological scars than others.
"His theory was that if you could create a narrative of your traumatic experience that makes sense in some way, you were much better off," Levy tells WebMD. "You were much better off than someone who was just shocked. So that goes along with the idea that if you have the ability to verbalize your experience, it can afford you some kind of protection."
But another PTSD expert says knowing what is happening to you won't make your PTSD any better. Russell J. Kormann, PhD, is associate director of the PTSD program at New Jersey's Rutgers University.
"No matter how much a person with PTSD understands that this car backfire is not incoming mortar fire, he can't control his response," Kormann tells WebMD. "You could argue that intelligence provides a buffer, a better understanding. But what happens in PTSD is that the extreme anxiety is so painful that people try to avoid it -- so they avoid anything that causes them to relive that experience. Someone with a better IQ may be better at limiting this kind of exposure -- but as time goes on, it becomes unavoidable. It is hard to avoid hot August days where the weather is just like it was in Vietnam, because they are going to happen. A more intelligent person may see the weather report and know tomorrow is going to be a hard day -- but he can't avoid the experience."