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Understanding direct and indirect exposure to adversity: A study of people's worst life events

  • Author(s): Thompson, Rebecca Robin
  • Advisor(s): Silver, Roxane Cohen
  • et al.

Decades ago, there was great interest in the creation of a life events scale that could rank order the severity of the events people experienced in their lives, but this approach was eventually abandoned following recognition that appraisal of severity of life events is highly subjective. At this point, little is known about how people think about their various negative life events in relation to one another. We studied what events people considered to be the "worst" in their lifetimes by using data collected in a longitudinal study of a large nationally representative sample of US residents outside New York (N=1609) who were exposed to the September 11th terrorist attacks exclusively via the media. Bereavement events were the most commonly cited "worst" life events (42% of sample); violent events were cited by over 11% of the sample. However, over 21% of the sample named 9/11 as their worst life event, despite the fact that no respondents directly experienced the 9/11 attacks. Having experienced greater numbers of violent and loss events over one's lifetime was associated with decreased odds of naming 9/11 as one's worst life event; having watched 4+ hours of 9/11-related television coverage in the week after the attacks was associated with increased odds of naming 9/11 as one's worst life event one year later. Events experienced through the media can be seen as the worst of people's lives, which has important implications for assessing stressful life event history and for understanding indirect exposure to negative life events.

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