What’s New in the Study and Treatment of Interpersonal Trauma? Judith Margolin, Psy. D

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What’s New in the Study and Treatment of Interpersonal Trauma?

Judith Margolin, Psy.D

The study of the pervasive psychological effects of trauma has seen a significant growth since the mid-1980’s, when the term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ was first included as a mental health diagnostic category in the DSM-III. Numerous scholarly articles, and books, as well as personal narratives have contributed to our understanding of the effects of trauma. This study has facilitated a movement away from a pejorative judgment on the individual’s personality, where the response to a traumatic event was seen as an inherent weakness, or lack of moral fiber, toward the recognition that the event itself is the only etiology for the disorder. This non-pathologizing, destigmatizing approach to treatment now focuses on growth and recovery, while addressing variables specific to the individual (individual risk factors, vulnerability and personal meaning), characteristics of the event (degree of exposure, chronicity, physical threat, unpredictability and lack of control) and the response of the social environment to the victim (availability of timely, caring, nurturing, compassionate and non-blaming support). Also addressed are questions of cultural relativism (what constitutes trauma for a specific individual or culture) and variability of response to same event (why do some people develop PTSD, while others do not?).

Trauma Defined

Trauma is specifically defined “the direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves the death, injury or threat to physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or close associate (Criterion A1). The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior)” (Criterion A2) (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000, p. 463). This includes experiencing or witnessing events such as combat, sexual and physical assault, disasters, severe accidents, life threatening illnesses, as well as early childhood abuse even if it does not involve threatened or actual violence or injury.

In contrast to the DSM-III-R definition (APA, 1987), the DSM-IV-TR does not address threats to psychological integrity. For the purposes of treatment, it has been recognized that “an event can be traumatic if it is extremely upsetting and at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s internal resources; people who experience major threats to psychological integrity can suffer as much as those traumatized by physical injury or life threat, and can respond to trauma-focused therapies” (Briere and Scott, 2006, p.4).

The Psychological Effects of Trauma

Pervasive and all encompassing, the effects of trauma can produce clear clinical symptoms, but may also resulting in an alteration of an individual’s understanding of, or meaning assigned to, their life. Experiencing a traumatic event Threat to life, physical, or psychological integrity may overwhelm ordinary human adaptation to life, resulting in intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, threat of annihilation, and when action is of no avail, helplessness and terror. Such an event often has the power to inspire helplessness and terror, when action is of no avail. The helplessness (to take action to change the outcome) appears to be a major factor in defining the experience of trauma. The traumatic reaction emerges from this disorganized system of self defense (fight, flight, freeze), and from the dissociation of sensations and emotions related to the experience. These reactions may affect normally integrated functioning, increasing physiological arousal and emotional dysregulation, and causing changes in cognition and memory.

Depending on the characteristics of the event, personological variables and the availability of social support, the individual’s reaction to the traumatic event may or may not reach clinically significant levels of impairment. Human attachments and relationships may be directly affected; in fact, disruptions in this area may underlie some of the most severe impairments. The individual may experience difficulty assimilating the traumatic life event into internal schema, resulting in a distorted sense of self in relation to others, a disruption of basic trust and the modulation of intimate involvement with others, and in the capacity to regulate emotions. Failure to integrate the trauma may also result in dissociative states and physiological alterations, while attempts to “self medicate” these deregulating effects may result in the abuse of alcohol and drugs. Diagnoses such as Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety, Phobia, Panic Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dissociation, Somatization Disorder and Substance Abuse often co-occur with the experience of trauma (Briere and Scott, 2006).

Early childhood abuse, extended torture and captivity, chronic domestic violence are examples of experiences which may result in a more complex and chronic profile that is distinct from the experiences of a discrete traumatic event (“simple PTSD”). This profile has been labeled variably as Complex PTSD (Herman, 1992b), Disorder of Extreme Stress, NOS (van der Kolk, Roth, Pelcovitz, Sunday & Spinazzola, 2005), or Self-Trauma Disturbance (Briere, 2002a), severe, prolonged and repeated trauma, usually of an interpersonal nature, has been addressed as a distinct form of trauma, even as it is not distinguished in the DSM-IV-TR. This distinction recognizes the chronic and developmental impact of the experience, reflected in impairments of self identity, interpersonal relatedness, affect regulation, as well as somatic and cognitive impairments. The frequent use of tension reducing behaviors (e.g. self mutilation, substance abuse, binging/ purging, and suicidality) and instability in interpersonal relationships often characterizes this population.

Philosophy and Stages of Treatment

In their book, Principles of Trauma Treatment, Briere and Scott (2006) summarize the basic philosophy of trauma treatment generally accepted by practitioners in this field. Trauma treatment emphasizes empowerment and strength vs. pathology or deficit, in promoting movement toward maximum complexity of functioning. Skill building and empowerment, in addition to symptom reduction, are essential treatment goals even in the most chronic experiences of trauma where the individual may feel damaged for life (p.68). Judith Herman (1992) highlights the importance of a stage-based approach to the treatment of trauma in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery that emphasizes the importance of the therapeutic relationship in the development of a safe, paced approach for the development of a coherent narrative and reconnection with the community. van der Kolk (2006b) also supports this model in treating PTSD, emphasizing the management of anxiety and emotional processing.

Mind-body interventions are essential when treating the symptoms of PTSD. PTSD may represent and individual’s inability to successfully defend against threat, resulting in a state of increased arousal and helplessness. “Traumatized individuals are vulnerable to react to sensory information with sub cortically initiated responses that are irrelevant and often harmful in the present” (van der Kolk, 2006. 2). Failure to integrate sensory input, modulate arousal, and engage in effective verbal communication interferes with the capability of traumatized individuals to engage in the present, thereby causing them “to lose their way in the world” (van der Kolk, 2006). Mind-body interventions aid in the processing of unpleasant sensations and emotions that originate in physical sensations Mind-body approaches involve increasing the tolerance of feelings and sensations that originate within the body (interoception), modulation of those emotions and learning effective action to confront the sense of physical helplessness.

Professionals have widely recognized the importance of addressing attachment in the conceptualization and treatment of the effects of trauma (Siegel, 1999; Cloitre, et al., 2006; Fosha, 2002; Briere & Scott, 2006; Herman, 1994; Schore, 2000). It is well understood that early experiences (stable, secure relationships with early caretakers, in particular) provide the base from which the child can safely explore, discover, grow and develop healthy relationships. When adults fail to provide the necessary safety, security, sensitivity, responsivity and protection, serious disruptions may occur in the child’s ability to develop these secure attachments from which to venture out into the world. Impaired attachment often results from the experience of trauma, which can contribute to the development of severe disturbances in the child’s capacity to organize a coherent sense of self and to modulate emotions. This is reflected in impairments of affect regulation, interpersonal relationships, cognitive organization and orientation. Symptoms of these impairments become the focus of treatment with individuals who have experienced trauma.

Treatment Approaches

Affect Regulation

One of the major effects of trauma, particularly that of an interpersonally violent or chronic nature, is the functional impairment which results from emotional dysregulation, post-traumatic re-experiencing of the event, and interpersonal disconnections. For more than fifteen years, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (Linehan, 1993) has been recognized as one of the most effective treatments for disturbances of emotion modulation, attachment and interpersonal impairment, particularly with the high risk, chronically suicidal population. It has also been found useful with individuals experiencing complex PTSD disruptions. Utilizing group and individual treatment modalities, cognitive behavioral techniques and mindfulness, DBT is designed to teach the individual how to reduce emotional over-reactivity through the use of alternative ways of responding to either internally or interpersonally generated emotional experiences.

Cloitre, et al. (2006) have also developed a treatment program for survivors of childhood abuse that targets the range of symptoms resulting from these impairments. Their program addresses the impact of abuse on attachment organization and the emotional and social competencies necessary for effective living. Cloitre and her colleagues suggest a phase based approach that emphasizes emotional regulation, construction of adaptive relational models and an increased comfort in the bodily experience of presence in the environment. The ability to tolerate intense negative emotions is increased through learning to identify and manage physiological, cognitive, social and emotional reactions. This results in increased opportunities to experience positive emotions and improved relationships. A similar model is employed by Najavits (Seeking Safety, 2002), with the added component addressing co morbid PTSD and Substance Abuse Disorders.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Somatic disturbance is at the core of an individual’s experience of trauma, and the manifestation of post traumatic symptoms (hyperarousal, constriction and immobilization). Using the individual’s understanding of his physical state (body awareness) is critical in the facilitation of change in ways of responding to trauma (Rothschild, 2000). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy embodies this concept as the central component of its psychotherapeutic model, focusing on the interrupted or ineffective physical defensive movement sequences believed to contribute to trauma symptoms (Ogden & Minton, 2000). Incorporating intersubjective-relational and arousal regulation principles, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy integrates cognitive and somatic interventions to foster integration of three levels of information processing: cognitive, emotional and sensorimotor, recognizing profound effects of trauma on the body, the nervous system and relational attachments (Schore, 2006). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy blends theory and technique from cognitive and dynamic therapy with straightforward physical interventions, using what they term “a top down/bottom up intervention. This intervention style incorporates the psychotherapeutic model in which change occurs in cognitions and emotions, through a process of narrative expression and verbal representation (formulated in a top-down manner), with a “bottom up” intervention that addresses the pre-verbal, repetitive, unbidden, physical sensations, movement inhibitions and somatosensory intrusions of unresolved trauma (Ogden, Pain, Minton and Fisher, 2005, p.7). While offering an exciting new approach to the integration of mind and body in treatment, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy still requires further validation through clinical research studies. Additional models of somato-sensory therapies include, among others, the Hakomi model, the Pesso-Boyden psychotherapy, and Focusing (Ogden, Minton & Pain, 2006).
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Research has shown that exposure therapy and trauma processing are effective in treating post traumatic stress. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative treatment for trauma that has been found to be effective in the treatment of PTSD (Resick & Schnicke, 1992), largely due to its emphasis on processing trauma memories. EMDR treatment was more successful than pharmacotherapy in producing substantial and sustained reduction of PTSD and depression in most victims of adult onset trauma (van der Kolk, et al. 2007). Neither pharmacotherapy nor EMDR produced complete symptom remission in childhood onset trauma.

Francis Shapiro (1995, cited in Chemtob, Tolin, van der Kolk and Pitman, 2000) proposed an “accelerated information-processing” model to account for the resolution of trauma that is comprised of two main components, dual focus or dual attention, and bi-lateral stimulation. The patient is asked “to identify multiple aspects of the traumatic memory, and to focus on several aspects of a distressing experience (images associated with the event, the affective and physiological response elements and the negative self representation induced by the trauma) (Chemtob, et.al.,, 2000, p. 141). At the same time, the client's attention is grounded (orienting response) on some form of bilateral stimulation such as eye movements, tapping, or sound. Desensitization (the reduction in the emotional charge associated with the distressing experience) occurs through this combination of dual focus and bilateral stimulation. The personal meaning of the traumatic experience can then be modified through the process of cognitive restructuring into an alternative, more positive understanding of the event and its impact.

Considerable progress has been made in the study and treatment of traumatic stress, integrating the findings of neuroscience, attachment theory, affect regulation, and cognitive processing. “Trauma study has yielded entirely new insights into the way extreme experiences may profoundly affect our memory, how our bodies as well as our minds respond to stress, our ability to regulate our emotions and our relationships to other people” (van der Kolk, 2006b, p. 10). This paper has attempted to highlight some of the major directions this field has taken, both in diagnosis and treatment, while recognizing that there are many additional approaches that have achieved great success with this population. What has emerged is a non-pathologizing, destigmatizing, and empowering approach to conceptualization and treatment that emphasizes growth and recovery. It stresses the importance of understanding the role of individual vulnerabilities, and strengths, as well as the influence of the social environment and culture both in the creation of the problem and its solution.


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New Jersey Psychologist, Spring/Summer 2008, V58:2, pps. 30-31; V58:3 pps. 26-27

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images -> Vazirlar Mahkamasining 1994 yil 13 apreldagi 206-son qarori bilan tasdiqlangan
images -> O‘zbekiston respublikasi soliq kodeksiga asosan yuridik shaxslarga qo‘llanilgan soliq imtiyozlari
images -> Oliy matematika tarix, musiqa, pedagogika-pisixologiya
images -> Namangan viloyatida 2015 yilning yanvar-sentyabr oylari yakuni bilan iqtisodiy islohotlarni borishi va ijtimoiy-iqtisodiy rivojlanishning asosiy ko’rsatkichlari bo’yicha tahliliy ma’lumotnoma
images -> Namangan viloyatida 2015 yil yakuni bilan iqtisodiy islohotlarni borishi va ijtimoiy-iqtisodiy rivojlanishning asosiy ko’rsatkichlari bo’yicha tahliliy ma’lumotnoma
images -> 1. 1-Toshmatov, Maqsudov Olimjon Fayzullaevich, 1967 yil
images -> Asosiy iqtisodiy va ijtimoiy ko’rsatkichlar
images -> Date: Friday March 17th or Saturday March 18th 2017 where

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