An Unplanned Test of the Anxiety Buffer Disruption Theory of Post-Traumatic Stress Symptoms


Introduction: Anxiety buffer disruption theory (ABDT) suggests that traumatic events lead to the development of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by dismantling the anxiety-buffering system outlined in terror management theory (TMT). We attempted to test ABDT using data collected from emerging adults related to their experiences in a severe tornado that struck their general geographic area. Methods: The current study employed a longitudinal design. Using data collected both before and after the tornado, we tested whether (a) pre-tornado self-esteem or past trauma moderated the effect of tornado exposure on later PTSD symptoms, and (b) whether the relation between level of tornado exposure and subsequent PTSD symptoms was mediated by decreased self-esteem. Results: Consistent with ABDT, in our final analysis we found that exposure interacted with both pre-tornado self-esteem and past trauma to predict PTSD symptoms, though the moderating effect of past trauma was only marginally significant. However, none of the predicted effects was mediated through pre- to post-tornado changes in self-esteem. Discussion: The current study provides partial support for ABDT by demonstrating that pre-tornado self-esteem and trauma history were risk factors for greater PTSD symptom severity among individuals who were more exposed to the tornado. However, the failed mediation effects challenge core aspects of ABDT. Despite several limitations to the current study related to the timing and nature of our measurements, as well as the composition of our sample, our use of prospective data to test ABDT offers unique insight into the social-cognitive elements of PTSD.

Data and Codebook
Anxiety buffer, Terror Management, Trauma, PTSD