Longitudinal data collected from university students suggest that exposure to an acute trauma may be linked with an improvement in symptoms of anxiety or depression for some individuals. The research, led by Anthony Mancini of Pace University and co-authors Heather Littleton of East Carolina University and Amie E. Grills of Boston University, investigated human resilience in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting that occurred in 2007.
The shooting left 33 people dead (including the shooter) and 25 others injured, making it the most deadly civilian shooting in U.S. history. The event was undoubtedly tragic, affecting the lives of VA Tech students, staff, and their family and friends in profound ways.
But Mancini and colleagues hypothesized that the shooting may have had a surprising effect for some individuals. The researchers speculated that exposure to the trauma may have motivated some students to seek out social connections with others, and this increased sense of social connection could help to ameliorate preexisting symptoms related to depression and anxiety.
“Thus, although students, faculty, and staff undoubtedly had to contend with a deep sense of loss and an increased sense of vulnerability following the shooting, they also potentially experienced a changed social landscape, characterized by an increased sense of connectedness, trust, and cooperation,” the researchers explain in their paper.
Mancini and colleagues examined data from a longitudinal study of college women that was taking place at multiple universities, including Virginia Tech, at the time of the shooting. They analyzed data from 368 female students at Virginia Tech who had completed assessments measuring symptoms of depression and anxiety before the shooting and then 2, 6, and 12 months following the shooting. After the shooting, the researchers assessed the participants’ level of exposure to the shooting, their loss of loved ones, and the level of threat they perceived in relation to the shooting.
Examining participants’ depression and anxiety symptoms over time, the researchers identified distinct patterns of adjustment.
The majority of participants showed relatively consistent profiles over time — either they started with relatively low levels of symptoms that remained low over the course of the study (56% for anxiety symptoms, 59% for depression symptoms), or they started with relatively high levels of symptoms that remained high over time (8% for anxiety symptoms, 15% for depression symptoms).
As might be expected following a traumatic event, some individuals did report a sharp increase in their symptoms following the shooting (23% for anxiety symptoms, 19% for depression symptoms).
But the researchers also identified a fourth group of individuals who reported a decrease in symptoms over time following the shooting (13.2% for anxiety symptoms, 7.4% depression symptoms).
Further analyses indicated that participants who showed this “improvement trajectory” also tended to show an increase in social support over time, in line with the researchers’ hypotheses.
Given that social relationships are a key element of healthy psychological functioning, the findings suggest that trauma may be associated with improvements in psychological functioning for some individuals, insofar as it increased their feelings of closeness with friends and family.
The findings overall provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between mass trauma and psychological functioning and suggest that a key element of adaptive coping is the enhancement of close relationships.
Mancini, A., Littleton, H., & Grills, A. (2015). Can people benefit from acute stress? Social support, psychological improvement, and resilience after the Virginia Tech campus shootings. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702615601001