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Stress sensitization following a disaster: a prospective study

  • G. E. Smid (a1), P. G. van der Velden (a2) (a3), G. J. L. M. Lensvelt-Mulders (a4), J. W. Knipscheer (a1) (a5), B. P. R. Gersons (a1) (a6) and R. J. Kleber (a1) (a2) (a5)...

According to the stress sensitization hypothesis, prior exposure to extreme stressors may lead to increased responsiveness to subsequent stressors. It is unclear whether disaster exposure is associated with stress sensitization and, if so, whether this effect is lasting or temporary. This study aimed to investigate the occurrence and duration of stress sensitization prospectively following a major disaster.


Residents affected by a fireworks disaster (n=1083) participated in surveys 2–3 weeks (T1), 18–20 months (T2) and almost 4 years (T3) after the disaster. Participants reported disaster exposure, including direct exposure, injury and damage to their home at T1, and also stressful life events (SLEs) at T2 and T3. Feelings of anxiety and depression, concentration difficulty, hostility, sleep disturbance, and intrusion and avoidance of disaster-related memories were used as indicators of distress.


Residents whose home was completely destroyed responded with greater distress to SLEs reported 18–20 months following the disaster than residents whose home was less damaged. There were no differences in stress responsiveness almost 4 years after the disaster.


During the first years after a disaster, stress sensitization may occur in disaster survivors who experienced extreme disaster exposure. Stress sensitization may explain the persistence or progression of distress over time following extreme stressor exposure.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Dr G. E. Smid, Foundation Centrum ‘45, Nienoord 5, 1112 XE Diemen, The Netherlands. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
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