A single traumatic experience is enough to rattle people hard, but it rarely takes them down. In the face of subsequent ordeals, however, we become more vulnerable: a new study suggests that a second trauma has a critical role in leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that can include flashbacks, nightmares and intense anxiety, enough to disrupt a person’s life.

When scientists gave rats one painful electric shock, the rodents’ memories and stress response temporarily became blunted but returned to normal as expected. But after a second unpredictable harrowing experience, the animals began to show fear and anxiety similar to what is seen in people with PTSD.

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