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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

When combat prevents PTSD symptoms—results from a survey with former child soldiers in Northern Uganda

Roland Weierstall*, Inga Schalinski, Anselm Crombach, Tobias Hecker and Thomas Elbert

Author Affiliations

Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:41  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-41

Published: 14 May 2012

Abstract

Background

Human beings from time immemorial have eradicated neighbouring tribes, languages, religions, and cultures. In war and crisis, the cumulative exposure to traumatic stress constitutes a predictor of the development of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, homicide has evolved as a profitable strategy in man, leading to greater reproductive success. Thus, an evolutionary advantage of perpetrating violence would be eliminated if the exposure to aggressive acts would traumatize the perpetrator. We argue that perpetrating violence could actually ‘immunize’ a person against adverse effects of traumatic stressors, significantly reducing the risk of developing PTSD.

Methods

We surveyed 42 former child soldiers in Northern Uganda that have all been abducted by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) as well as 41 non-abducted controls.

Results

Linear regression analyses revealed a dose–response effect between the exposure to traumatic events and the Posttraumatic Diagnostic Scale (PDS) sum score. However, the vulnerability to develop trauma related symptoms was reduced in those with higher scores on the Appetitive Aggression Scale (AAS). This effect was more pronounced in the formerly abducted group.

Conclusions

We conclude that attraction to aggression when being exposed to the victim’s struggling can lead to a substantial risk-reduction for developing PTSD.