College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs Poster Presentations


Comparing Self Report and Physiological Stress Responses in Survivors of Childhood Trauma

Document Type

Student Presentation

Presentation Date


Faculty Sponsor

Rose Barlow


Researchers have only begun exploring the physiological aspects of dissociation. However, current research is minimal and results vary across studies. It is clear that further understanding of this subject would be beneficial. Hetzel-Riggin (2010) and Nixon, Bryant, Moulds, Felmingham, and Mastrodomenico (2005) reported that individuals who have experienced a traumatic event (e.g., sexual assault, violent attack) have increased heart rates and skin conductance levels when exposed to traumatic cues. In contrast, Griffin, Resick, and Mechanic (1997) and Pole et al. (2005) reported that greater levels of dissociation resulted in lower levels of cardiovascular activity when participants were asked to recall a traumatic event.

The goals of the current study are twofold: (a) to gather information about the physiological responses to stress in individuals who have experienced either high or low betrayal trauma, and (b) to contribute to research available on the subject of dissociation and physiological responses. We predict a positive correlation between betrayal trauma and physiological symptoms. Our hypothesis is that participants who experienced betrayal trauma as measured by the Brief Betrayal Trauma Survey (BBTS) will show different markers for stress using a modified version of the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS), than those who have no reported history of betrayal trauma. The SUDS is a tool that enables participants to self-report their level of distress on a ten-point scale with higher scores communicating more distress.

We evaluated participants using polygraph equipment to test participants’ physiological responses to stress. Blood pressure, respiration, and skin conductance response were combined to give a sum of the stress responses. Data for participants’ distress levels were collected at 12 points during the study so that comparisons could be made between reported distress and physiological responses to stressful situations. Results were paired with betrayal trauma ratings using the BBTS (Goldberg & Freyd, 2006).

We divided the participants into two groups: those who described themselves as having no betrayal trauma, and those who had experienced betrayal trauma. T-tests revealed no significant difference between groups on either their self-reported stress levels using the SUDS, or their physiological responses as measured by the polygraph equipment. This is an ongoing study, therefore these results are preliminary, and we do expect to find some interaction or group differences when more data are gathered and further data analysis is completed.

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