Research Lab for the Study of the Consequences of Trauma Exposure

Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
"The Princess Bride"

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.

Undergraduate Opportunities

Psyc 485 for credit, non-credit is also available.