Cognitions in Non Life-Threatening Traumatic Events
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Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition associated with diffuse impairment and distress. The onset of PTSD requires a traumatic stressor, an event in which an individual experienced or was confronted with death, serious injury, or threat to bodily integrity. An emerging research literature has demonstrated that some stressors, while not necessarily life-threatening (e.g., divorce), may provoke intense posttraumatic stress reactions and hallmark PTSD symptoms (e.g., flashbacks, sleep disturbance, emotional numbing; Carleton, Peluso, Collimore, & Asmundson, 2011). Associations between experiencing PTSD-like symptoms in response to non lifethreatening stressors have been documented; however, this area remains both controversial and relatively understudied. The purpose of the current study was to contribute to this emerging area of inquiry by exploring characteristic cognitions in non life-threatening trauma. Given that posttrauma cognitions have been implicated in the development and maintenance of PTSD, this study sought to determine the dimensions along which cognitions in non life-threatening traumatic events are organized. Individuals exposed to trauma, both life-threatening and non life-threatening, were recruited for this study. Both quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry were used to elucidate the research question, each carried out in two separate phases. The quantitative analyses were largely descriptive in nature, providing data on the nature and severity of posttrauma cognitions and symptoms. Planned t-tests and analyses of variance indicated that individuals meeting criteria for PTSD caseness in response to non life-threatening events (n = 53) did not differ in the severity or content of posttrauma cognitions as compared to those with PTSD caseness from life-threatening trauma (n = 75). Subsequent to the quantitative phase, six participants endorsing a non life-threatening event as the worst event ever experienced completed a qualitative interview in order to obtain rich descriptions of posttrauma cognitions. Grounded theory analyses revealed the presence of five themes: trust, low self-worth, needing to find meaning, perceptions of social interactions, and thoughts about traumatic recurrence. Together, the current data suggest that life-threatening trauma and non life-threatening distressing life events can produce very similar types and severity of cognitions. Comprehensive results, theoretical implications of trauma, and future research directions are discussed.