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Combat exposure is associated with elevated risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Despite considerable research on PTSD symptom clustering, it remains unknown how symptoms of PTSD re-organize following combat. Network analysis provides a powerful tool to examine such changes.
A network analysis approach was taken to examine how symptom networks change from pre- to post-combat using longitudinal prospective data from a cohort of infantry male soldiers (Mage = 18.8 years). PTSD symptoms measured using the PTSD Checklist (PCL) were assessed after 6 months of combat training but before deployment and again after 6 months of combat (Ns = 910 and 725 at pre-deployment and post-combat, respectively)
Stronger connectivity between PTSD symptoms was observed post-combat relative to pre-deployment (global strength values of the networks were 7.54 pre v. 7.92 post; S = .38, p < 0.05). Both the re-experiencing symptoms cluster (1.92 v. 2.12; S = .20, p < 0.03) and the avoidance symptoms cluster (2.61 v. 2.96; S = .35, p < 0.005) became more strongly inter-correlated post-combat. Centrality estimation analyses revealed that psychological reaction to triggers was central and linked the intrusion and avoidance sub-clusters at post-combat. The strength of associations between the arousal and reactivity symptoms cluster remained stable over time (1.85 v. 1.83; S = .02, p = .92).
Following combat, PTSD symptoms and particularly the re-experiencing and avoidance clusters become more strongly inter-correlated, indicating high centrality of trigger-reactivity symptoms.
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