Survivors of wars, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are at particular risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder, but similar signs of distress may appear in those who handle the human consequences of these events, according to a new study.
Military personnel who were assigned to mortuary duty during the Gulf War experienced an increase in the physical signs of distress, finds the study published in the January issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
The increase in physical symptoms from exposure to traumatic death “may represent an increased awareness of one’s own body or concern about usually dismissed physical symptoms or the somatic consequences of psychological stress,” says James E. McCarroll, Ph.D., of Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
Those more closely exposed -- personnel assigned to actually handle bodies -- experienced the most dramatic increases, while those who saw bodies were slightly less affected and those who worked at the facility but saw few bodies were only marginally affected by their exposure, McCarroll and colleagues report.
The study included 358 subjects who volunteered or were assigned to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, where all of the military personnel who died during the Gulf War were shipped.
Subjects answered questionnaires both before they started working at the mortuary and after their stint was completed. Some of them showed signs of trepidation about being exposed to dead bodies. These subjects were more likely to develop signs of distress over the course of their tour of duty, the researchers found.
“Individuals who report [physical] symptoms even before exposure may be at an increased risk after exposure,” they say.
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