Early traumas and young people’s reactions to terror

Adolescents can have post-traumatic stress reactions even when not directly affected by terrorist attacks such as the tragedy of 22 July 2011. 

By Andreas R. Graven

The terror attacks of 22 July 2011 also affected the health of high school students who neither had physical nor psychological closeness to the attacks. (Photograph: Colourbox)

They are at increased risk if they have experienced violence or abuse in early life.

It is a fact that proximity to major incidents increases vulnerability to post-traumatic stress. But scientists have known little about reactions in young people who were neither directly affected nor had a close relationship with any of the victims.

Now, a new study headed by researchers from Uni Research shows that the terror attacks of 22 July 2011 also affected the health of high school students who neither had physical nor psychological closeness to the attacks which cost the lives of 77 people.

Violence and abuse increases vulnerability
Young people who have been victims of violence or sexual abuse as children, or who have witnessed violence, are more vulnerable to developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress – even if they only followed the media coverage of the terrorist attacks.

“Everyone involved in the health care of young people must be aware that those with negative past experiences may have a tough period even if they were not directly affected by the attacks.”

Those are the words of researcher Dag Øystein Nordanger (photograph) of the Child and Youth Mental Health Centre RKBU Vest and Uni Research Health.

Those who have experienced sexual abuse numerous times have a doubled risk of post-traumatic stress reactions to a terrorist incident. For those who have witnessed or been victims of violence the risk is 50 percent greater.

An independent risk factor
The researchers show that trauma in early life is an independent risk factor, representing vulnerability to respond to later traumatic events such as a terrorist act.

The study has analysed data from the research project ung@hordaland, a unique comprehensive survey of mental health and everyday functioning in more than 10 000 high school students over time.

“Our findings are important because they tell us that prevention of violence and abuse early in life also means preventing negative reactions to major incidents that occur later,” said Nordanger.

He also pointed out that there is now a greater focus on the prevention of violence and traumatic stresses in childhood.

Agreement with other findings
Nordanger said that researchers are now beginning to understand more of the consequences of earlier traumatic events.

“Our findings concur with results from brain research that show that traumas early in life lead to changes in the brain that affect a person’s ability to handle stress and regulate stress and emotions.”

“It may be enough just for something like a terrorist attack to happen, if you see and read the media coverage. That can make you anxious, and give you symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” added Nordanger.

Dag Ø. Nordanger, Kyrre Breivik, Bente Storm Haugland, Stine Lehmann, Magne Mæhle, Hanne Cecilie Braarud, Mari Hysing Prior adversities predict posttraumatic stress reactions in adolescents following the Oslo Terror events 2011. European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2014, 5: 23159 – http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v5.23159

May 30, 2014, 2:55 p.m.