Self-Affirmation Attenuates Death-Thought Accessibility After Mortality Salience, but Not Among a High Post-Traumatic Stress Sample

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Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy


© 2017 American Psychological Association. Objective: According to anxiety buffer disruption theory (ABDT), people function effectively in the world, in part, by relying on anxiety-buffer systems to protect against death awareness; however, traumatic experiences can overwhelm and disrupt those anxiety-buffer systems, leaving people unprotected from death awareness and at increased risk for the major symptom clusters of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Based on that idea, it was hypothesized that (a) when posttraumatic stress symptoms are low, self-affirmation (a known worldview/self-esteem based anxiety-buffer) should prevent mortality reminders from causing increased death-thought accessibility (DTA); but that (b) when posttraumatic stress symptoms are high (indicating anxiety-buffer disruption), self-affirmation should fail to prevent mortality reminders from increasing DTA. Method: To test these hypotheses, participants identified in a general population prescreen assessment as "low posttraumatic-stress symptom" (n = 222) and "high posttraumatic-stress symptom" (n = 210) were reminded of death (vs. control topic), prompted to engage in a self-affirmation (vs. nonself-affirmation) task, and then asked to complete a standard assessment of death-thought accessibility (DTA). Results: The hypotheses were confirmed, revealing that posttraumatic stress symptoms were associated with the ineffectiveness of anxiety-buffer system in protecting against increased death awareness. Conclusion: The present findings support of a foundational concept of ABDT, and point to new insights about the nature of PTSD and its treatment, because failure to manage death awareness is known to cause anxiety and exacerbate anxiety-related disorders (e.g., PTSD).