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The basic premise behind secondary trauma theory is that individual stress symptoms are communicable, and those who are close to the trauma survivor can be “infected” with the trauma symptoms (Catherall, 1992a; Figley, 1995).

The basic premise behind secondary trauma theory is that individual stress symptoms are communicable, and those who are close to the trauma survivor can be “infected” with the trauma symptoms (Catherall, 1992a; Figley, 1995).
Briana S. Nelson Goff Kansas State University
Douglas B. Smith Kansas State University
Research traditionally has focused on the development of symptoms in those who experienced trauma directly but overlooked the impact of trauma on the families of victims. In recent years, researchers and clinicians have begun to examine how individual exposure to traumatic stress affects the spouses/partners, children, and professional helpers of trauma survivors. However, empirically supported, theory-based literature that identifies the mechanisms by which interpersonal or “secondary trauma” occurs in response to traumatic events is limited. Here, we present the Couple Adaptation to Traumatic Stress Model, a systemic model of the development of interpersonal symptoms in the couple dyad based on empirical literature. Potential mechanisms and clinical vignettes are included to describe the systemic processes that occur with trauma couples. Areas for future research and clinical implications also are identified.
Traumatic events have received much clinical and empirical focus in the last 25 years. Although traumatic experiences have been survived by people for centuries, scientific knowledge of trauma has increased in recent history. Much of the literature on trauma and posttraumatic stress focuses on the individual effects of trauma on the primary victim-the person who directly experienced the traumatic event (Herman, 1997; van der Kolk, McFarlane, & Weisaeth, 1996). In the past, the fields of traumatic stress and marriage and family therapy (MFT) have only occasionally intersected in the development and conceptual- ization of psychological trauma. As mental health professionals in the 21st century, it is necessary for MFTs to become knowledgeable in the field of traumatic stress.
THEORETICAL AND EMPIRICAL FOUNDATIONS OF SYSTEMIC TRAUMATIC STRESS IN COUPLES
This article highlights the importance of identifying a more systemic focus on traumatic stress within the MFT profession. The predominant focus in the trauma literature has been on the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000), a disorder that, by definition, focuses on the intrapersonal effects of traumatic events on the individual trauma survivor. The literature that describes a systemic approach to trauma primarily involves secondary traumatic stress theory (Figley, 1983, 1998), adult attachment theory (Johnson, 2002), and the relational approach to trauma treatment (Sheinberg & Fraenkel, 2001).

 
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