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PTSD Triggered by a Dead Body, Other Catastrophes

One of the mainstays of popular “haunted houses” is make-believe dead bodies.  Haunted houses use such fake cadavers to scare patrons, relying on strong reactions when humans confront corpses. 

The trauma can be profound after a person finds a dead body in real life.

This traumatic response is magnified if an individual discovers a human body undergoing decomposition.    

War zone experiences can trigger horrific post-traumatic stress; however, experiences in garrison can also lead to such trauma.  We recently completed a lengthy brief for an Air Force client – a medical technician whose PTSD was triggered by encountering dead bodies during his assigned duties. 

During the 1990s, the Center for Research on End of Life Care at Cornell Medical College discovered that many individuals acquired what is now known as traumatic grief.

Traumatic grief involves what are classified as intrusive symptoms. These symptoms leave a person to deeply fear that the event will recur in the future.  Disturbing symptoms include:

  • Nightmares
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Startle reactions
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Feelings of insecurity

Coming across a dead body is not the only PTSD trigger. Situations that cause PTSD can include:

  • Combat
  • Kidnapping
  • Natural disaster
  • Catastrophic accident
  • Violent sexual assault
  • Violent physical assault
  • Witnessing a person violently killed or injured

Certain risk factors render a person more apt to suffer PTSD following the discovery of human remains. These include:

  • Previous trauma
  • Preexisting mental health condition
  • Lack of post-trauma support
  • The severity of the traumatic event itself.

We have gathered useful materials on encountering dead bodies – including comments from a national mortician association recognizing such dangers for funeral home staff.

We are available to discuss this aspect of PTSD with potential clients!



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