Research Lab for the Study of the Consequences of Trauma Exposure

Buttercup: You mock my pain.
Man in Black: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.  (The Princess Bride, 1987)

In life, while pain is unavoidable, I believe that psychological suffering is avoidable to a far greater extent. My research program is focused on the ambitious goal of reducing psychological suffering, particularly following exposure to potentially traumatic events. 

 For example, I am interested in the notion that altering how people respond to their negative private events after exposure to traumatic events may provide a mechanism for reducing risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Following trauma exposure, it is extremely common for people to experience distressing reactions such as intrusive memories and physiological arousal, but only approximately 30% develop diagnosable PTSD.  What distinguishes the majority of people who demonstrate minimal-impact resilience to traumatic events from those who experience persistent distress?  I am interested in the premise that when people respond to their own negative private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, body sensations) with inflexibility and avoidance, they experience an increased risk of developing PTSD.

Experiential avoidance, a term that was introduced in the later 1990’s by Steve Hayes and colleagues, refers to a person’s inability or unwillingness to remain in contact with negative private events, such as thoughts, memories, feelings, and physiological reactions, and the actions taken to avoid contact with these events.  Experiential acceptance refers to a person’s ability to maintain contact, without judgment, with negative private events.  Constructs such as forgiveness, mindfulness, and self-compassion, on the other hand, are considered experientially accepting and flexible responses.   I am particularly interested in whether experientially avoiding and accepting responses operate as risk and protective factors for outcomes following exposure to traumatic events.

Sexual revictimization (i.e., women who have been sexually abused as children are at higher risk of being sexual assaulted as adults) is a robust and highly unfortunate phenomenon.  Although those who perpetrate sexual assault are responsible for the assault, given that sexual revictimization is costly on a societal and personal level, I am interested in factors, such as using alcohol or sex to reduce negative affect, that may increase women’s risk of being sexual assaulted as adults.  The combination of using both alcohol and sex to reduce negative affect may be particularly risky in terms of vulnerability to sexual assault, regardless of previous victimization history. 

Recently, we have been examining fear physiology (e.g., laboratory fear potentiated startle to a fear conditioned cue, fear discrimination and fear extinction, as well as dark enhanced startle) as a risk factor for posttraumatic stress symptoms.   

Current Graduate Students in the CTE Lab

lab

CTE Lab graduate students October 2014

Front row (left to right): Sara Himmerich, Derrecka Boykin, Caitlin Pinciotti

Back row (left to right): Susan Hannan, Lynsey Miron, Antonia Seligowski

susan Susan Hannan: I am a fifth year graduate student in the clinical psychology program at NIU.  I am from Cleveland, OH, and I received my B.A. in psychology from Kent State University.  My research interests broadly include risk and resiliency factors related to psychological outcomes (e.g., PTSD) following trauma exposure.  Specifically, I am keenly interested in the role that emotion dysregulation may play in the development and/or maintenance of psychological outcomes following a potentially traumatic event.  For my dissertation I am assessing emotion regulation choice (i.e., cognitive reappraisal vs. distraction) in undergraduate students with low and high levels of PTSD symptoms.  In my free time I enjoy running, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.

lynseyLynsey Miron: I’m a fifth year student in Dr. Orcutt’s lab. I’m originally from St. Croix Falls, WI and received my B.A. in psychology from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. I am interested in mindfulness-based treatment approaches and their components, including mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, acceptance, and psychological flexibility. Specifically, I am interested in how these and other factors influence individual outcomes following trauma exposure, including childhood abuse and sexual assault. For my dissertation, I am exploring how individuals’ attitudes toward self-compassion (e.g., being either receptive or fearful of self-compassion) may influence the utility of meditation practice by measuring participants’ physiological response (e.g., heart rate variability, facial EMG) to a compassion-focused meditation. I am also interested in whether other variables (e.g., trauma history, personality features) contribute to differences in responding, with the goal of identifying those who may benefit most from compassion-focused interventions. My non-psychology interests include hiking, canoeing, binge-worthy TV, and good coffee.

derrecka Derrecka Boykin: I am currently a fourth year student in the clinical psychology program.  I was born and raised in Smalltown, Indiana and graduated with a B.S. in psychology from University of Pittsburgh.  Following graduation, I participated in Pitt's Hot Metal Bridge Fellowship program where I gained invaluable educational and research skills that have contributed to my graduate school success.  I am broadly interested in understanding cognitive and behavioral factors that contribute to trauma-related disorders, improving treatment-seeking among trauma victims, and evaluating trauma assessment instruments and research methodology.  In my spare time, I like to spend time with my family, travel, create DIY projects, and watch tv/movies.

antonia Antonia Seligowski: I am a third year student in the Clinical Psychology program at NIU. I’m originally from Auburn, MA, and I received my B.A. in psychology from Boston University. After graduation, I worked as a research assistant at UMASS Medical School in Worcester, MA and at the National Center for PTSD in Boston, MA. My research interests are related to risk and maintaining factors for PTSD, such as biological phenomena and emotion regulatory processes. My thesis project examined the structure of emotion regulation using confirmatory factor analysis. I am currently working on a project that will explore neurological correlates and predictors (i.e., event-related brain potentials) of the fear-potentiated startle response. I am particularly interested in these relations among trauma-exposed individuals. Outside of the program, I enjoy cooking, ballroom dancing, swimming, and spending time with friends and family.

sara Sara Himmerich: I am currently a first-year student in the clinical program at NIU.  I am originally from Byron, MN and received my B.A. in psychology and Asian Studies from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.  Prior to coming to NIU, I lived in San Diego, CA, where I received an M.A. in psychology from San Diego State University and also worked in PTSD research at the San Diego VA Medical Center.  I am broadly interested in the relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders, as well as the unique mental health issues Veterans face as they return to school.  Outside of the program I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, traveling, hiking, and cooking.

caitlin Caitlin Pinciotti: I am a first year student in Dr. Orcutt’s lab.  I am from Cleveland, Ohio, and received my B.S. in Psychology from Xavier University and my M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Cleveland State University.  Most recently, I worked at the Margaret Blenkner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and worked, among other things, on a study looking at veterans with coexisting PTSD and dementia.  My research interests broadly include sexual assault and PTSD and I have recently studied the psychological impact of formal self-defense training on female survivors of sexual assault.  In my free time, I enjoy traveling, playing softball, and cheering on my Cleveland sports teams.

CTE Lab in Action

FPS EEG

Undergraduate Opportunities for Engaged Learning

Credit and non-credit opportunities are available most semesters.  Please contact horcutt@niu.edu for information.

                 Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day at NIU 2010

Undergraduate Research Day 2010

Undergraduate Research Day 2010

Current Graduate Students

  • Susan Hannan
  • Lynsey Miron
  • Derrecka Boykin
  • Antonia Seligowski 
  • Sara Himmerich
  • Caitlin Pinciotti

Previous Graduate Students

  • Holly Harris
  • Marilyn Garcia
  • Scott Pickett
  • Nicolette Howells
  • Brooke Pope Kurby
  • Madhavi Reddy
  • Mandy Kumpula
  • Ruth Varkovitzky (honorary lab member)
  • David Call
  • Joe Bardeen

Undergraduate Opportunities

Psyc 485 for credit,
non-credit also available