The effects of posttraumatic stress disorder and sexual assault on the startle response
Research has suggested that women who experience sexual assault are at risk for developing various types of psychopathology, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the symptom clusters of PTSD is increased physiological arousal that was not present before the traumatic experience. Research has shown that combat veterans with PTSD exhibit an intensified eye blink startle response to auditory stimuli. When compared to the combat literature, the existing research on the startle response to acoustic stimuli in victims of sexual abuse is lacking. There is only one published study on the topic. The purpose of the present study was to examine the eye blink startle responses of three groups of women: those with a history of recent sexual abuse with PTSD, those with a history of recent sexual abuse without PTSD, and those with no history of abuse without PTSD. It was hypothesized that victims of recent contact sexual abuse who exhibit symptoms of PTSD would exhibit a larger eye blink startle response at moderate- and highintensity acoustic stimuli than victims of recent contact sexual abuse without symptoms of PTSD. It was further hypothesized that individuals who reported no history of abuse would exhibit the smallest eye blink startle response of the three groups. The sample consisted of 14 women with a history of recent sexual assault and PTSD, 14 women with a history of recent sexual assault and no PTSD, and 15 women with no history of abuse and no PTSD. There were no significant differences between the three groups in the magnitude of the eye blink startle responses. It should be noted that for the highest decibel level, the means were in the hypothesized direction. The findings of the present study are inconsistent with the existing literature in the field of the startle response and PTSD. Continued research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be made regarding the effects of sexual assault and PTSD on the startle response.