The relationship between posttraumatic stress symptoms and narrative structure among adolescent terrorist-attack survivors

Background: The structure of trauma narratives is considered to be related to posttraumatic stress symptomatology and thus the capacity to make a coherent narrative after stressful events is crucial for mental health.

Objective: The aim of this study is to understand more of the relationship between narrative structure and posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS). More specifically, we investigated whether internal and external focus, organization, fragmentation, and length differed between two groups of adolescent survivors of a mass shooting, one group with low levels of PTSS and one group with high levels of PTSS.

Method: The sample comprised 30 adolescents who survived the shooting at Utøya Island in Norway in 2011. They were interviewed 4–5 months after the shooting and provided a free narrative of the event. PTSS were assessed using the UCLA Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Reaction Index (PTSD-RI).

Results: We found that survivors with high levels of PTSS described more external events and fewer internal events in their narratives compared with survivors with low levels of symptoms. The analysis also showed that especially narratives containing more descriptions of dialogue and fewer organized thoughts were related to higher levels of PTSS. The groups did not differ in levels of narrative fragmentation or in length of the narratives.

Conclusion: Specific attributes of narrative structure proved to be related to the level of PTSS. On the basis of our results, we can recommend that practitioners focus especially on two elements of the trauma narratives, namely, the amount of external events, particularly dialogues, within the narrative and the number of organized thoughts. Participants with high levels of PTSS provided trauma narratives with low amount of organized (explanatory) thoughts accompanied by detailed descriptions of dialogues and actions, which is indicative for “here and now” quality of recall and a lack of trauma processing.

Petra Filkuková, Tine K. Jensen, Gertrud Sofie Hafstad, Hanne Torvund Minde and Grete Dyb | 2016
In: European journal of psychotraumatology, ISSN 2000-8066 | 7 | 1 | 29551