Is Anxiety Buffer System Compromised in People with PTSD?

According to a new study led by Pelin Kesebir of the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, people who suffer with PTSD have an anxiety buffering system that is compromised. “According to terror management theory (TMT), human awareness of mortality and vulnerability creates a potential for paralyzing anxiety. Effective management of this potential is essential for psychological well-being and adaptive functioning,” said Kesebir. “The study reported here tests the idea that persons afflicted with PTSD display a disruption in their anxiety-buffering system.”

TMT describes how people cope with mortality. Healthy individuals engage their anxiety buffer system to cope with the fear that mortality brings. “This terror is kept at bay by an anxiety-buffering system consisting of a cultural worldview, which provides an explanation for existence, standards through which one can attain a sense of personal value, and the promise of literal or symbolic immortality to those who live up to these standards; self-esteem, which is acquired by believing in the cultural worldview and living up to its standards; and close personal relationships,” said Kesebir. Previous research has linked psychological problems with inability to manage death related anxiety. “Following the same reasoning, we posit that PTSD is associated with a breakdown of one’s anxiety buffering mechanisms as a result of a traumatic experience.”

Kesebir and his colleagues tested 89 Polish women from domestic violence shelters, half of whom were diagnosed with PTSD. All of the women were asked to judge moral transgressions and make punishment recommendations. The women without PTSD gave harsher recommendations, such as the death penalty, than the women with PTSD, which was consistent with the theory that PTSD causes people to move away from death-related thoughts. “The present study, combined with other emerging ABDT (anxiety buffer dysfunction theory) studies, lends support to this argument by showing that when the anxiety buffer is not functioning adequately, as in the case of PTSD afflicted individuals, the terror is experienced on a continual basis in the form of overwhelming anxiety and related symptoms, such as re-experiencing, hyper-arousal, numbing, and avoidance,” said Kesebir. He added that the impaired anxiety buffering system may be responsible for the anxiety PTSD survivors feel when faced with threatening situations or circumstances involving mortality.

Kesebir, Pelin, Aleksandra Lusqcynska, Tom Pyszczynski, and Charles Benight. “PosttrauMatic Stress Disorder Involves Disrupted Anxiety-buffer MechanisMs.”Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 30.8 (2011): 819-41. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Hugh


    November 3rd, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    So let me see if I get this- you mean that those with PTSD have a harder time filtering out the anxiety in life? That is what causes them to have PTSD? If that is the case then would anti anxiety medication help them if we had a better idea of who is or is not at risk of developing the disorder?

  • Andrea


    September 3rd, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    PTSD is caused by an overwhelming traumatic event. As a result of this or these events (ie. abuse, war) a person may develop symptoms of PTSD. Although medication may be helpful to alleviate some of these symptoms, therapy, or a combination of both are essential for the afflicted person to move towards mental health.

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