A Longitudinal Study of Psychological Distress and Exposure to Trauma Reminders After Terrorism

The aim of this study was threefold: (1) to examine the type and frequency of trauma reminders reported by survivors 2.5 years after a terrorist attack; (2) to examine whether frequency of exposure to trauma reminders is associated with psychological distress and level of functioning; and (3) to compare the worst trauma reminders reported by the same survivors at 2 different time points.


Method: Participants were 261 survivors (52.1% male; Mage = 22.1 years, SD = 4.76) of the 2011 massacre on Utøya Island, Norway, who were interviewed face-to-face 14–15 and 30–32 months postterror. Participants were asked how often they had experienced various trauma reminders in the past month, which reminder was the worst, and how distressing it was. Current posttraumatic reactions were measured using the University of California at Los Angeles PTSD Reaction Index and an 8-item version of the Hopkins Symptom Checklist-25.

Results: Auditory reminders were most frequently encountered and the most distressing. Frequency of exposure to trauma reminders was positively correlated with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression, as well as negatively correlated with level of functioning, over time. Almost 20% of the survivors reported being very distressed by their worst reminder 2.5 years postterror. Less than half reported the same worst reminder at both time points.

Conclusion: Trauma reminders, especially auditory reminders, are prevalent and distressing for years after a terrorist attack. Exposure to reminders may be important not only in the development and maintenance of PTSD but also in a broader conceptualization of posttraumatic reactions and functioning. Which reminder survivors appraise as the worst may fluctuate over time. It is important to help survivors identify and cope with reminders.

Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000224

Published Jan. 23, 2017 7:15 AM