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cognitive theory of trauma
The cognitive theory of trauma is a psychological framework that explains how traumatic events can affect the way people think, feel and behave. According to this theory, trauma can disrupt the cognitive schemas that people use to make sense of themselves and the world, leading to negative emotions, distorted beliefs and maladaptive coping strategies. In this article, we will explore the main concepts and assumptions of the cognitive theory of trauma, as well as the evidence and implications for clinical practice.
What is the cognitive theory of trauma?
The cognitive theory of trauma is a psychological framework that explains how traumatic events can affect a person’s mental and emotional well-being. According to this theory, trauma is not caused by the event itself, but by the person’s interpretation and appraisal of the event.
The theory proposes that when a person experiences a traumatic event, they may develop negative beliefs about themselves, others, and the world, such as “I am worthless”, “People are dangerous”, or “The world is unsafe”. These beliefs can interfere with the person’s ability to cope with the event and its aftermath, and can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, hypervigilance, and emotional numbing.
The cognitive theory of trauma also suggests that to recover from trauma, the person needs to challenge and modify their negative beliefs, and replace them with more realistic and adaptive ones. This can be done through cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which is a type of psychotherapy that helps the person identify and change their distorted thoughts and behaviours related to the trauma. CBT can also help the person develop coping skills, such as relaxation techniques, problem-solving strategies, and social support, to reduce their distress and improve their functioning.
How it has been applied
The cognitive theory of trauma is a framework that explains how traumatic experiences affect the way people process information and cope with stress. According to this theory, trauma challenges the existing beliefs and models that people have about themselves, others, and the world, and creates a discrepancy between the traumatic information and the pre-trauma cognitive environment. This discrepancy leads to psychological distress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as intrusive memories, avoidance, negative emotions, and hyper-arousal. The cognitive theory of trauma also suggests that the resolution of trauma depends on the integration of the traumatic information into a coherent and adaptive schema that restores a sense of meaning, control, and safety.
The cognitive theory of trauma has been applied in modern psychology in various ways, such as developing cognitive-behavioural therapies for PTSD, understanding the role of memory and emotion in trauma processing, identifying risk and protective factors for trauma recovery, and examining the social and cultural influences on trauma responses. The cognitive theory of trauma has also been integrated with other theories, such as attachment theory, social cognitive theory, and dual representation theory, to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced account of the impact of trauma on human functioning.
Strengths and weaknesses
The cognitive theory of trauma assumes that traumatic events challenge the existing beliefs and schemas of the individuals who experience them, and that the psychological symptoms of trauma are the result of the attempts to integrate the incompatible information into a coherent mental representation. According to this theory, some of the strengths of the cognitive approach are:
- It provides a clear and testable framework for understanding the mechanisms of trauma and its effects on memory, emotions, and behaviour.
- Also, it offers evidence-based interventions that target the maladaptive cognitions and coping strategies that maintain the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
- It accounts for the individual differences in the responses to trauma and the factors that influence the recovery process, such as pre-trauma beliefs, appraisals, social support, and coping self-efficacy.
Some of the weaknesses of the cognitive theory of trauma are:
- It may neglect or oversimplify the role of other factors that contribute to the development and maintenance of PTSD, such as biological, genetic, environmental, and cultural influences.
- Also, it may not adequately address the complexity and diversity of traumatic experiences and their subjective meanings for different individuals and groups.
- It may not capture the positive or transformative aspects of trauma, such as post-traumatic growth, resilience, or spirituality.
Here is a list of weblinks for further reading on cognitive theory of trauma:
cognitive behavioural therapy for PTSD by the American Psychological Association. This article explains how social cognitive theory suggests that trauma can affect people’s beliefs and perceptions of control, and how cognitive behavioural therapy can help them cope with their symptoms. URL:
trauma theories by John Marzillier. This chapter from the book The trauma Therapies outlines various scientific and therapeutic theories of trauma, including a comparison of cognitive models of trauma memories. URL:
cognitive Theories and Models by Matthew J. Friedman. This chapter from the book Post-traumatic stress provides an overview of different cognitive theories and models of PTSD, such as Horowitz’s stress response syndrome, Ehlers and Clark’s cognitive model, and Brewin’s dual representational theory. URL:
A Conceptual Framework for the Impact of Traumatic Experiences by Patricia A. Resick and Monica K. Schnicke. This article proposes a conceptual framework for understanding the effects of traumatic experiences on psychological functioning, based on cognitive processing theory and emotional processing theory. URL: