Date of Award

8-2013

Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

Advisor

Sandra T. Sigmon

Second Committee Member

Robert J. Ferguson

Third Committee Member

Marie J. Hayes

Abstract

Having a history of sexual trauma, including childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and/or adult sexual assault (ASA), has been associated with the development of intimacy and relationship problems in adulthood (e.g., Blake & Weinberger, 2006; Peleikis & Dahl, 2005; Pistorello & Follette, 1998). Several models have been proposed to account for the emergence of intimacy issues among sexual trauma survivors, including the PTSD formulation, which posits that symptoms associated with PTSD (e.g., intrusion, hyperarousal, avoidance, cognitive disturbance) directly impact a survivor’s ability to form and maintain healthy bonds and relationships (e.g., Mills & Turnbull, 2004). In addition, PTSD has been associated with dysregulation in the body’s stress response system, the HPA axis. Cortisol, a main hormonal output of the HPA axis, can become blunted in trauma survivors and can lead to many negative consequences for an individual’s later sexual functioning and intimacy. Overall, the impact of sexual trauma on intimacy is associated with large personal costs for the individual.

In the current study, the impact of sexual trauma and PTSD symptom severity on cortisol reactivity to an interpersonal task that required intimate self-disclosure with an unacquainted male was examined within two groups: women with a history of CSA and/or ASA (n = 26) and women without a history of sexual trauma or PTSD (n = 25). Self-reported anxious mood and stress ratings were also assessed before, during, and after the intimacy task. Participants completed additional questionnaires following the lab visit to assess for disturbances in their real-life relationships.

Results indicated that: 1) survivors of sexual trauma demonstrated a blunted cortisol response to the intimacy task compared to controls; 2) PTSD symptom severity was not associated with cortisol levels among survivors; 3) survivors reported significantly greater anxious mood and stress ratings in response to the intimacy task compared to controls; 4) survivors reported the same levels of emotional closeness to the male peer in the intimacy task as controls; 5) survivors reported using more coping strategies in general (negative and positive) in response to the intimacy task compared to controls; and 5) survivors reported experiencing more attachment-related avoidance and anxiety in their real-life relationships compared to controls, but did not differ in regards to their perceptions of relationship quality.

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