Tag Archives: trauma

When the past comes to haunt

Pop culture is rife with stories of people who blame their negative childhood experiences for their incapacity to stay within relationships or marriages, from the fictional serial killer Dexter who felt it impossible to connect to anyone to Jennifer Aniston’s announcement that her experience of her parents’ divorce made her wary of interpersonal intimacy. But are these mere pop psychology incarnations or are children who experienced traumas any likelier to experience certain marital troubles as adults?

Whisman’s (2006) study on childhood traumas looked at seven different childhood traumas: physical abuse, rape, sexual molestation, serious physical attack, experiences of being threatened with a weapon, life threatening accident, and natural disasters; and the effect of these on marital disruption and marital satisfaction. Physical abuse, rape, and sexual molestation were associated with higher probability of marital dissolution. Lower marital satisfaction was associated with individuals who had experienced rape or sexual molestation. Traumas with assaultive violence, or those where another person directly harmed the child were more likely to be associated with marital disruption and dissatisfaction, as these are seen to be more likely to lead to attachment insecurity (characterized by avoidance, lack of trust) which may then lead to lower marital stability.

Photo: “Goodbye my lover.” by Andii Jetaime, c/o Flickr. Some Rights Reserved.

Dexter crosses media lines, captivate fans

Aniston: ‘Childhood Trauma Blighted My Marriage’

Whisman M. A. (2006) Childhood trauma and marital outcomes in adulthood. Personal Relationships

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Secret Sharers: When Listening Takes Its Toll

The recent events at Fort Hood, Texas — multiple killings on an army base at the hands of a soldier — have people asking many questions. How could this happen in a protected space, such as an army base? How could it happen at the hands of a soldier? And how could it happen at the hands of a soldier whose job it was to help others with their own psychological distress?

The experiences of war are traumatic for the soldiers and those living in war torn areas. The cumulative effects of combat stress can lead to such disorders as PTSD. But is there a similar cumulative effect of listening, repeatedly, to soldier’s most traumatic experiences? Researchers have found that listening to traumatic stories from clients can cause psychological distress for the clinician. This phenomenon has been termed “vicarious traumatization” and, over time, it can lead to “compassion fatigue” in the therapist.

One study has shown that personal characteristics of the therapist, such as the extent to which they “practice what they preach” in terms of working through their own stress, is directly related to burnout and compassion fatigue. But as a recent NY Times article points out, in addition to the stress of listening to soldiers’ harrowing tales of war, the military psychologists are also dealing with the prospect of their own deployment. Although there is a built in “checks and balances” system to monitor those providing care, the authors point out that for an officer at his rank, Maj. Hasan would have been expected to seek help on his own if he felt he needed it. However, this philosophy does not align with previous findings which show that therapists often feel expected to shoulder the burden of traumatic stories and that there is a sense of pride in maintaining client confidentiality and personal composure.

These findings, coupled with another study that shows the social function of “collective remembering” — in which the “social sharing” of emotions related to a traumatic event have long-term benefits in terms of post-traumatic growth and social integration — make salient the differences between sharing trauma at a collective vs. individual level. Collective sharing and processing of emotions can help a society and its citizens work through traumatic events. Therapists clearly have a role in sharing the experiences and facilitating positive coping processes, but their own experiences and stresses cannot be neglected in the process.

Does the war end when the shooting stops? The psychological toll of war. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, July 2006

Factors affecting burnout and compassion fatigue in psychotherapists treating torture survivors: Is the therapist’s attitude to working through trauma relevant? Journal of Traumatic Stress, March 2007

Compassion fatigue: When listening Hurts. APA Monitor, September 1995

Painful stories take a toll on military therapists. NY Times, 11/7/09

Social sharing of emotion, post-traumatic growth, and emotional climate: Follow-up of Spanish citizen’s response to the collective trauma of the March 11th terrorist attacks in Madrid

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