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Conference Report
Trauma Psychology Symposium
NZPsS '97

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1997-3

A report on:

Trauma Psychology Symposium
50th Anniversary Conference of the
New Zealand Psychological Society

Reported by: Christine Stephens
Department of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand

Psychological Aspects of Trauma

A common focus of the presentations in this symposium was the application of theoretical models in practice and research. Three of the papers highlighted different aspects of practice but emphasised the importance of sound and inclusive theoretical models. Theory is the essential basis for the resolution of controversy and work designed to improve understandings in the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic stress.

Graham Taylor and Chris Lee reviewed the clinical considerations and eight phases of treatment underpinning the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). They proposed a model of trauma memory and resolution based on information processing and psychobiological theory. This model, which comprises a complex of components, is offered as a clinically useful heuristic in establishing successful outcomes using EMDR. The authors demonstrated, using two examples recently published, that critical evaluations of EMDR have used only a limited or mislabeled presentation of the therapy, or participants who were exposed to an invalid traumatic experience. Research demonstrating positive therapeutic change using EMDR were reported.

Kathryn Gow addressed another controversial area of traumatic stress outcomes by reporting on her experiences in working with and researching in the area of `false memory syndrome'. Several variables that contribute to the development of `recovered memories' have been covered in the psychological literature including: the nature of memory, the role of hypnosis in therapy, and the personality characteristics of client and therapist. Dr Gow suggested that there are many additional factors within the social and therapeutic context that contribute to these memories in complex interactions. These include client characteristics, precipitating events, media induction, social-perceptual pre-conditioning, therapist beliefs, treatment settings and secondary gain. The social effects go beyond the client and family and include the effects of retractions and the consideration of `true memories'. The paper was concluded with a warning to clinicians to gain informed consent, to keep scrupulous records, to keep up with current research and to refresh their understandings of the theory that informs their practice.

Tony Taylor discussed a single case which highlights some issues in the current `repressed memory' debate. In the case of a young man charged with murder, the defence was based on provocation resulting from a `flashback' experience and a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder. The defendant had been sexually abused as a child, and the situation and behaviour of the victim of his attack had momentarily returned him to memories of his childhood trauma to which he responded with the emotions of the child but the strength of an adult. The perpetrator of the abuse corroborated the similarities of the victim and the situation to the past abuse and the jury accepted the defence. Although, as Professor Taylor pointed out, this memory was retained throughout the young man's life, and not repressed, the facts of the case raise some questions regarding the nature of traumatic memory. He encouraged clinicians to return to the study of memory processes in trauma prevention and treatment practice, and cognitive psychologist to include these issues in future research.

A fourth paper by Douglas Paton and Leigh Smith shifted the focus of the application of theory from practice to methodological and assessment issues in researching work-related traumatic stress. Those whose work increases their chances of being exposed to traumatic stressors include professional groups such as firefighters and police officers. Theory development and testing in this area is being hindered by the use of a range of methods and instruments, many of which may be unreliable and invalid, so that comparison between studies is difficult. The paper presented three central issues in this area. The first issue is that of structural problems in the assessment measures used. The measures that have been developed to assess PTSD treat the theoretical construct as a single homogeneous entity, however, recent work has shown that this assumption is not valid. A second issue is the nature of the organisations and their practices which have been shown to interact with the development of symptoms in workers following critical incidents. Thirdly, and closely related to the first two issues, there is as a need for normative data regarding symptomatology across types of work practice. Collection of such data will involve longitudinal multi-wave designs rather than cross-sectional or even pre- and post-event measures. Addressing these issues will be important first steps in placing the study of work-related stress on a firm theoretical footing.

The fifth paper was a joint presentation and a reminder of the very human and tragic context of traumatic stress practice. Barry Parsonson described the difficult conditions under which he and Jane Rawls taught psychologists at the State University, Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. The aim of the programme was to develop theoretical knowledge and technical skills in behaviour analysis to be used in work with children traumatised by civil war and `ethnic cleansing' and to train future workers. The authors provided many of the resources necessary for the training programme which lasted three months. Jane Rawls presented some initial results of her work with the refugee children in Georgia. This included a description of the children's stories of war, escape and loss, and children's drawings that vividly portrayed some of their horrific experiences and difficult present living conditions. The presentation concluded with a moving photographic essay detailing the conditions and people with whom Barry and Jane had worked.


Gow, K. (1997, August). The complexity of researching into "false memory syndrome" In C. Stephens (Chair), Psychological aspects of trauma. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Parsonson, B. S., & Rawls, J. M. (1997, August). Teaching psychologists in the Republic of Georgia to apply behaviour analysis techniques to traumatised children: A report. In C. Stephens (Chair), Psychological aspects of trauma. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Paton, D., & Smith, L. (1997, August). Methodological and assessment issues in researching work-related traumatic stress. In C. Stephens (Chair), Psychological aspects of trauma. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Taylor, G. & Lee, C. (1997, August). Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR): Controversies, complexities and clinical considerations. In C. Stephens (Chair), Psychological aspects of trauma. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Taylor, A. J. W. (1997, August). Trauma as a function of encapsulated memory. In C. Stephens (Chair), Psychological aspects of trauma. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


Christine Stephens © 1997. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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Department of Psychology, Massey University , New Zealand
URL: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/
last changed Monday, 10 November 1997
Copyright 1997 Massey University