Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Lilly, Michelle M.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of Psychology


This study utilized the trauma film paradigm to explore interpersonal processes in post-trauma social interactions and their relation to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms within the framework of social-cognitive theory. Social support following a traumatic experience has been consistently linked with posttraumatic outcomes and PTSD symptoms, yet the exact mechanisms underlying this relationship remain unconfirmed. One theory is that when trauma survivors emotionally and cognitively process the traumatic experience within positive supportive conversations, these conversations can result in fewer negative posttraumatic cognitions, beliefs, and appraisals that have been linked to symptoms of PTSD. Likewise, negative support can create and reinforce already existing maladaptive appraisals, which can inhibit future processing of the trauma and increase PTSD symptoms (e.g., avoidance, intrusions).

Trauma survivors are often encouraged to talk about the trauma with others. However, little is known about the structure of these interactions and the conditions under which optimal positive impact, or the most detrimental negative impact, of the conversations occur. The long-term objective of the project is therefore to produce findings that can guide post-trauma social interactions and disclosures in such a way that they will be most beneficial to trauma survivors in terms of trauma-related symptoms, appraisals and cognitions, and emotions. The specific aims of this dissertation were to 1) investigate whether positive and negative support in post-trauma interactions with peers relates to later analogue post-trauma symptoms, 2) investigate whether this relationship is partially mediated by negative posttraumatic cognitions, and 3) investigate whether content shared (i.e., facts and details alone versus inclusion of thoughts and emotional reactions) in the disclosure moderates the relations between social support and posttraumatic cognitions.

To achieve these aims, the trauma film paradigm was utilized to create a situation in which a post-trauma interaction and analogue trauma symptoms were observed. Participants viewed distressing film clips that were intended to induce short-term distress and impermanent intrusive thoughts, and then had a short conversation with a friend they brought with them to the laboratory. Participants were randomly instructed to either discuss their thoughts and feelings about the film clips, or to discuss facts and details of the film clips. Friends’ verbal statements were coded for negative and positive support, and participants answered questions about posttraumatic cognitions, as well as tracked intrusive thoughts about the film clips over the subsequent two days. It was hypothesized that social support would be related to posttraumatic cognitions, negative mood, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance of film-related stimuli, and that social support would indirectly influence intrusive thoughts and avoidance through cognitions. Furthermore, it was hypothesized that participants who discuss their thoughts and feelings would exhibit more positive outcomes as compared to those who discuss details, and that condition (facts versus thoughts/feelings) would moderate the association between social support and cognitions.

However, the data did not support any of the hypotheses. Positive and negative social support was not related to other study variables. Further, condition did not appear to function as designed, and was not related to outcomes. Potential explanations for these results include, among others, the measurement of social support (i.e., coding schema), measurement of posttraumatic cognitions, failed manipulation of condition, and lack of need or lack of time to process the trauma analogue. Future research should include a measurement of perceptions of the interaction, coding of nonverbal support, different design of conversation prompts, and more relevant measurement of cognitions and social support.


205 pages




Northern Illinois University

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