Research Areas and Projects: Interpersonal Trauma

My primary research interest is the assessment, prevention, and treatment of interpersonal violence (IPV), such as sexual assault, child abuse, and partner aggression. In terms of assessment, I am interested in the prevalence and incidence of IPV in specific populations (children, minority groups, etc.), risk and resiliency factors associated with IPV (coping styles, personality variables, social support, etc.), resulting psychopathology (posttraumatic stress, depression, eating disorders, etc.), and changes in behavior, cognition, physiology, and interpersonal relationships as a result of IPV. My focus with regards to prevention includes the effectiveness of primary prevention of IPV on campus and in the community and secondary prevention for individuals at risk for IPV. An overarching goal of my research is to identify factors that may interfere with therapy for IPV survivors and to find or develop adjuncts to treatments to overcome these factors.

Sexual Assault

Our research has examined the impact of characteristics of a sexual assault, initial emotional reactions, disclosure, and cognitive processes on trauma narratives. We have found that specific event-related characteristics and initial emotional reactions were the best predictors of the quality of trauma narratives, suggesting that reading trauma narratives at the beginning of therapy may help counselors understand survivors of sexual assault readiness for change (Hetzel-Riggin & Bequette, 2007b). Trauma narratives were also examined to compare the structural, cognitive, and process components in narratives written by female rape victims who experience high or low levels of peritraumatic dissociation. Differences were found in word count, reading ease, and words associated with anxiety and tentativeness. Therefore, therapists may be able to identify specific narrative differences in trauma stories that can be used to track treatment progress (Hetzel-Riggin, 2006). In another study examining the predictors of PTSD and depression in sexual assault survivors, initial emotional reactions, especially fear, guilt/shame, and anger, are good predictors of later psychological distress. Self-blame was associated with both PTSD and depression scores, suggesting a common etiology for these disorders and explanation for their comorbidity in sexual assault survivors. In contrast to previous findings, beliefs about control, perpetrator blame, level of force, and danger feelings were not predictive of PTSD or depression. These results may be helpful when assessing women after a sexual assault for risk factors for PTSD and depression (Hetzel-Riggin, 2010).

We have also examined how physiological responses are associated with coping and psychopathology in sexual assault survivors. One study examined the effects of peritraumatic dissociation and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the physiological reactivity to trauma cues in women who had been sexually assaulted. We identified that peritraumatic dissociation and PTSD status led to significant differences in mean heart rate during exposure to a survivors own sexual assault description, but not to other frightening events (Hetzel-Riggin, 2010). A second study investigated the predictive ability of current psychological problems, physiological responses, and subjective feelings on immediate coping response in a sample of female rape victims. Current PTSD symptoms were predictive of thought suppression, dissociation, and emotional distancing. Physiological responses were predictive of dissociation and emotional distancing, whereas subjective feelings and current levels of depression were predictive of thought suppression (Hetzel-Riggin & Wilber, 2010). In an ongoing study we are assessing the effects of peritraumatic dissociation on physiological responses to trauma cues across time.

Social pressures may affect the likelihood and acceptability of sexual assault. A beginning study in this area studied whether feeling powerful or powerless affects a person’s rape myth acceptance and decisions about what is or is not a sexual assault. Sexual assault is a crime of power, and previous research has shown that the feeling of being in power increases a person’s acceptance of sexually harassing behavior and humor. Power did not seem to have an effect on rape myth acceptance, but feeling powerless did seem to lead participants to blame the perpetrator less. One possible reason for this is that the feeling of being powerless may lead one to be less likely to blame anyone. Men were more likely to endorse rape myths than women, suggesting that men are more likely to minimize the effects of rape on the victim and diffuse blame, responsibility, and negative effects of sexual assault (Bulthuis, W., Torkelson, H., Szechowycz, A., Braden, R., Suttles, K., Salmon, S., & Gradowski, J.; 2007)

Child Abuse

Child abuse is a severe and traumatic event in the lives of many children around the world, yet the research into the reasons for and treatment of child abuse is still relatively young. One factor that may influence how child abuse is perceived and defined is ethnicity. A current study being conducted in our lab seeks to understand the ethnic differences in definitions of child abuse. Participants from various ethnic groups were asked to define terms associated with child abuse in their own words, and qualitative analyses of these definitions will be conducted. The knowledge gained from this study will hopefully assist social service workers understand differences in parenting, discipline, and abuse between cultures.

Previous research has shown that women with a history of sexual abuse have a higher rate of alcohol abuse, substance abuse, mental health problems (such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety), and self-esteem concerns as compared to non-abused women. However, for the small sample assessed in our lab, there were no significant differences between groups on any of these variables. One reason may be that college students represent a relatively healthy group of people who may be using adaptive coping responses even in the face of multiple stressors (Peterson, 2008).

We also used meta-analysis to investigate the independent effects of different treatment modalities on a number of secondary problems related to childhood sexual abuse, as well as investigate a number of different moderators of treatment effectiveness. The findings suggested that psychological treatment after childhood sexual abuse tended to result in better outcomes than no treatment. However, there was significant heterogeneity in the effectiveness of the various psychological treatment elements. The main finding of this research was that the choice of therapy modality should depend on the child’s main presenting secondary problem (Hetzel-Riggin, Brausch, & Montgomery, 2007).

Partner Maltreatment

We also have been examining the predictors of partner maltreatment. In one sample, low self-esteem and longer relationships predicted partner maltreatment for all participants. Participants with and without a history of family violence differed in which coping styles predicted partner maltreatment. These findings suggest that psychological maltreatment prevention programs should target increasing self-esteem for all audiences. Prevention programs should also aim at decreasing self-blame for individuals with a history of FV as well as education in tension reduction and the benefits of social support for those without a history of FV (Suttles & Hetzel-Riggin, 2009). Another study examined the predictors of male victimization and perpetration in partner maltreatment. Men who were victims of partner maltreatment reported greater substance use and domestic violence perpetration (Pritchard, 2007). We also identified that increases in obsessive compulsive symptoms are associated with higher rates of partner maltreatment (Colón et al., 2010). Because much of our research in conducted on college students, we have developed the “Healthy Relationships Scale” which assesses relationship health and satisfaction. We are currently in the process of validating the scale (Augustine, 2010a, Augustine, 2010b).

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