Anxiety Buffer Disruption: Worldview Threat, Death Thought Accessibility, and Worldview Defense Among Low and High Posttraumatic Stress Symptom Samples

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Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy


© 2019 American Psychological Association. Objective: Decades of research suggest that people are able to function effectively in the world and maintain mental health and well-being, at least in part, by relying on effective sociocultural anxiety buffer systems to shield against the awareness of death. However, according to anxiety buffer disruption theory, posttraumatic stress reflects anxiety buffer disruption, signaling that sociocultural belief systems have been rendered unable to buffer the individual against death awareness. As such, we would not expect to see the normal responses to death awareness meant to bolster and defend those belief systems in participants with posttraumatic stress. Method: To test these hypotheses, we screened for posttraumatic stress in U.S. participants (n = 4,150) and recruited individuals with low (n = 193) and high (n = 205) posttraumatic stress symptoms. Each group was randomly assigned to a worldview-threat or -support condition, followed by a standardized measure of death-thought accessibility (DTA) and worldview defense. Results: In the nonthreat (worldview-support) condition, individuals with high (vs. low) posttraumatic stress had elevated DTA. Further, among individuals with low posttraumatic stress, worldview threat (vs. -support) increased DTA, which in turn mediated an increase in worldview defense; however, among those with high posttraumatic stress, worldview threat did not increase DTA and its effect on worldview defense was substantially reduced. Conclusion: These findings supported the present hypotheses derived from anxiety buffer disruption theory, are important for understanding the existential dimension of posttraumatic stress, and may have implications for mental health.