From shattered assumptions to weakened worldviews: Evidence of anxiety buffer disruption in individuals with trauma symptoms

Date of Completion

January 2009


Psychology, Clinical




The fundamental assertion of worldview-based models of PTSD (e.g., shattered assumptions theory; Janoff-Bulman, 1992) is that trauma symptoms result when traumatic experiences introduce overwhelming, worldview-discrepant information that cannot be easily assimilated into previously held worldviews. This shattered assumptions hypothesis has proven difficult to test due to methodological and theoretical issues, so evidence for it is equivocal. The present work offers the anxiety buffer disruption hypothesis (Abdollai et al., under review), an alternative hypothesis which states that trauma symptoms result from the disruption of the normal death anxiety-buffering functions of worldview that have been demonstrated by terror management theory (TMT) research. The anxiety buffer disruption hypothesis is theoretically consistent with worldview-based models of PTSD because it merely shifts the focus from potential trauma-induced changes in worldview content to observable worldview functioning deficits (i.e., decreased suppression of death-related thoughts). Further, it represents a testable synthesis of worldview-based models with TMT. In two studies, the present work provides support for the anxiety buffer disruption hypothesis. In Study 1, worldview functioning was assessed in three trauma symptom groups. Death-thought accessibility (DTA) was measured immediately after participants were reminded of mortality, a prior stressful or traumatic event, or dental pain. After reminders of death, participants who reported trauma symptoms greater than the suggested cutoff for PTSD "caseness" showed the greatest degree of DTA, followed by those with sub-clinical trauma symptoms, whose DTA was greater than those with negligible symptoms (whose DTA did not differ from DTA scores in the dental pain or stressful/traumatic event reminders, which did not differ). In Study 2, the two strategies that facilitate suppression of death thoughts in functioning worldviews were assessed. Participants with clinically significant trauma symptoms showed no evidence of worldview defense even though death-thoughts were accessible, and an experimentally manipulated self-esteem boost did not facilitate death-thought suppression. These results suggest that trauma symptoms signal a disruption of the normal anxiety-buffering functions of worldviews, and that the core psychological structures that are normally marshaled to defend against existential threats fail to protect individuals whose worldviews have been weakened by trauma. Implications for PTSD research and treatment are discussed. ^