Associations Between Childhood Abuse, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Implicit Emotion Regulation Deficits: Evidence From a Low-Income, Inner-City Population

Abigail Powers, Amit Etkin, Anett Gyurak, Bekh Bradley, Tanja Jovanovic
Psychiatry 2015, 78 (3): 251-64

OBJECTIVE: Childhood abuse is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes, including increased risk for development of emotion dysregulation and psychopathology, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The goal of the present study was to examine associations between child abuse, PTSD symptoms, and performance on an emotional conflict regulation task that assesses implicit emotion regulation abilities.

METHOD: The sample consisted of 67 (94% African American) females recruited from a public, urban hospital. Childhood abuse was measured using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, and PTSD was measured using the modified PTSD Symptom Scale. Task accuracy and implicit emotion regulation were measured through an emotional conflict regulation behavioral task.

RESULTS: A multivariate analysis of covariance showed that exposure to moderate to severe childhood abuse was significantly related to worse emotional conflict regulation scores independent of current PTSD symptoms, depressive symptoms, and adult trauma exposure, suggesting a deficit in implicit emotion regulation. We also found an interaction between PTSD symptoms and abuse exposure in predicting accuracy on the behavioral task; high levels of PTSD symptoms were associated with poorer task accuracy among individuals who reported moderate to severe exposure to childhood abuse. However, no relationship between implicit emotion regulation abilities and overall PTSD symptom severity was found.

CONCLUSIONS: This study provides preliminary evidence of an implicit emotion regulation deficit for individuals exposed to significant childhood abuse and further supports the growing evidence that addressing various aspects of emotion dysregulation, such as awareness of emotions and strategies to manage strong emotions, in the context of treatment would be valuable.


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