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Cognitive paths from trauma to posttraumatic stress disorder: A prospective study of Ehlers and Clark's model in survivors of assaults or road traffic collisions

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Esther T. Beierl, Inga Böllinghaus, David M. Clark, Edward Glucksman, Anke Ehlers

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

King's Authors


BackgroundIndividual differences in cognitive responses to trauma may represent modifiable risk factors that could allow early identification, targeted early treatment and possibly prevention of chronic posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ehlers and Clark's cognitive model of PTSD suggests that negative appraisals, disjointed trauma memories, and unhelpful coping strategies maintain PTSD. These are thought to be influenced by cognitive processing during trauma. The aim of this study was to test this model prospectively with path analyses.MethodsParticipants (N = 828) were recruited from an emergency department following injury in a violent assault or road traffic collision and 700 participated in the 6-month assessments. Cognitive processing was assessed shortly after the event, negative appraisals, disjointed memories, and unhelpful coping strategies at 1 month, persistent PTSD symptom severity at 6 months, and early PTSD symptom severity at 2 weeks.ResultsCognitive variables, with trauma type and gender, explained 52% of the variance in PTSD symptom severity at 6 months. Including early symptom severity in the model did not explain more variance (53%). Early PTSD symptom severity, with trauma type and gender, only predicted 40%. Negative appraisals and disjointed memories predicted persistent symptom severity both directly and indirectly via unhelpful strategies. Peritraumatic processing predicted persistent symptom severity mainly indirectly. The effects of trauma type and gender were fully mediated by the cognitive factors.ConclusionsThe results are consistent with theoretically derived predictions and support cognitive factors as indicators of risk for chronic PTSD and as a target for the treatment and prevention of PTSD.

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