Psychological Adjustment After Mass Trauma (Virginia Tech Shooting)

Psychological Adjustment Following the Mass Shooting at Virginia Tech

Conservation of Resources Theory

Unfortunately, many people will experience some kind of traumatic event in their lifetime. Often it is a private experience such as abuse or assault. Sometimes, however, traumatic events can affect whole communities or even countries. Recent examples for this are terrorist attacks, school shootings and the church shooting in Charleston. Research shows that following a traumatic event, recovery is largely influenced by the losses and gains of valued resources for individuals.

The “conservation of resources (COR)” theory (Hobfoll & Lilly, 1993) emphasizes the changes in resources as a predictor of adjustment following trauma. Resources include tangible items (e.g.: one’s home or vehicle) and conditions (e.g.: being employed) as well as interpersonal (e.g.: intimacy, affection) and intrapersonal (e.g.: sense of life direction, hope) aspects. According to COR theory, individuals are highly motivated to retain and protect these valued resources (Hobfoll, 2001).

COR theorizes that it is the loss of resources during a traumatic event that has a significant effect on functioning. The loss of resources is costly to individuals because they have to invest further resources to restore what has been lost, and it also increases one’s vulnerability to further loss of resources, resulting in a resource loss spiral (Hobfoll & Lilly, 1993).  Furthermore, those who lack resources are more vulnerable to resource loss after a stressor or trauma. On the other hand, resource gains can be important because they can buffer individuals from resource loss and can help restore valued resources after the loss (Hobfoll, 2001). Interestingly though, resource gains seems to have less impact on adjustment than resource loss. This could be in part because individuals must invest resources to gain new resources and it sometimes carries some risk as well (e.g.: risking rejection as one seeks social support). But when individuals are successful in gaining resources initially, they are more likely to risk current resources to gain further resources, resulting in a resource gain spiral (Hobfoll & Lilly, 1993). According to COR, after a traumatic event, individuals engage in active coping in order to protect against resource loss, maintain extant resources and gain new resources (Hobfoll, 2001).

Previous studies on mass traumas (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and terrorist attacks) have found that resource loss has been associated with psychological distress in victims (Galea et al., 2002).

As mentioned above, COR theory states that individuals who lack resources are more vulnerable to resource loss. Social support has been regarded as highly important in protecting individuals from resource loss following trauma (Adams, Boscarino, & Galea, 2006). Individuals with strong social networks may be able to respond to interpersonal resource loss better and receive assistance from others in restoring lost resources. Social support may also protect against the loss of intrapersonal resources such as hope and self-esteem. On the other hand, psychological distress before the trauma is a risk factor for resource loss, as individuals in psychological distress tend to lack interpersonal and intrapersonal resources (Adams et al., 2006).

The Current Study

The current study aimed to examine the relationship between interpersonal and intrapersonal resource loss and psychological distress in students following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that occurred in 2007. The mass shooting was one of the worst civilian mass shootings in US history with 33 dead, including the lone gunman, and 25 injured (Associated Press, 2007). This study examined the extent to which the interpersonal and intrapersonal resource loss and gain in the first 2 months following the shooting predicted psychological distress 6 months after the shooting. The study also looked at the extent to which initial resource losses and gains predicted further losses and gains over time. Moreover, the researchers tried to identify the potential predictors of resource loss and gain, specifically pre-shooting social support and use of active coping.


Initial resource loss after the shooting did predict psychological distress 6 months after the incident. Also, those who lacked resources prior to the shooting were more vulnerable to loss. So those who lacked social support and experienced psychological distress before the shooting experienced resource loss after the trauma. Moreover, the notion of the resource loss spiral was also relevant in that those who reported resource loss in the first 2 months after the incident, further experienced resource loss during the following 4 months.

Even though the mass shooting did not result in a significant material resource loss, many individuals experienced losses of highly valued intangible resources such as optimism and that affected their adjustment following the trauma. This explains why some individuals experienced persistent distress after the event if they were only indirectly exposed to it.

Consistent with COR theory, both social support prior to the trauma and active coping predicted resource gain. This finding confirms the idea that those individuals who have greater resource reserves are more able to engage in actions resulting in further resource gain after a threat to those resources. Active coping is also an important predictor of resource gain. A potential explanation for this is not necessarily that these individuals’ resources weren’t threatened by the trauma. However, these individuals were able to better mobilize their resources and respond adaptively to the threat of loss presented by the trauma.

Psychological Adjustment Following the Mass Shooting at Virginia Tech References

Littleton, H.L., Axsom, D., & Grills-Taquechel, A.E. (2009). Adjustment following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech: The roles of resource loss and gain. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 3, 206-219.

Hobfoll, S. E., & Lilly, R. S. (1993). Resource con- servation as a strategy for community psychology. Journal of Community Psychology, 21, 128 –148. 

Hobfoll, S. E. (2001). The influence of culture, com- munity, and the nested-self in the stress process: Advancing conservation of resources theory. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 337– 421. 

Galea, S., Ahern, J., Resnick, H., Kilpatrick, D., Bucuvalas, M., Gold, J., & Vlahov, D. (2002). Psychological sequelae of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. New England Journal of Medicine, 346, 982–987. 

Adams, R. E., Boscarino, J. A., & Galea, S. (2006). Social and psychological resources and health out- comes after the World Trade Center disaster. Social Science & Medicine, 62, 176–188. 

Associated Press. (2007, April 28). Va. Tech wounded may heal slowly. Retrieved from www Wounded.html