When an individual experiences an intensely traumatic event, the way he or she processes future challenges can be forever altered. For instance, people who have lived through a devastating hurricane may be overly sensitive to storms of any kind. When a storm approaches, they may develop physiological symptoms such as a racing pulse or cold sweats that can impair their self-efficacy and coping strategies. These reactions are similar to those of people with social anxiety and panic. They, too, can have a cognitive bias toward certain situations resulting in physiological symptoms that can impair their ability to cope effectively. There has been much research devoted to this phenomenon among people with anxiety, but little attention has been given to the coping self-efficacy processes in survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV).
Jessica E. Lambert of the Trauma, Health & Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs wanted to find out if women who experienced repeated IPV would develop the same cognitive bias that panicked individuals developed—and specifically if these biases would erode their coping self-efficacy. Lambert led a study assessing 55 women survivors of IPV and found that they did indeed have increased bias to negative physiological reactions than non-IPV women. Additionally, this bias led to lower levels of coping self-efficacy and elevated symptoms of both depression and posttraumatic stress (PTSD).
It is possible that repeated exposure to violence creates a biased response in these women. But regardless of why it occurs, it sets the stage for a vicious cycle of negative responses and poor psychological outcomes. Lambert found that the women survivors catastrophized more than the non-IPV women, which suggests that the response bias is not merely the result of the physiological processes at work, but also how they are perceived by the women. Lambert notes that this study examined only physiological reactions at one fixed moment in time, and hopes future research will extend these results to include longitudinal data. Despite this limitation, the results show that women who have survived IPV are at increased risk for a cycle of self-defeating behaviors due to bias. “Although speculative given the cross-sectional nature of these data, this negative self-defeating cycle may lead to more impaired coping strategies for dealing with the abuse and increases in post-trauma symptoms,” Lambert said.
Lambert, J. E., Benight, C. C., Wong, T., Johnson, L. E. (2012). Cognitive bias in the interpretation of physiological sensations, coping self-efficacy, and psychological distress after intimate partner violence. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029307
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