A Critical Reflection on Information Processing Theories of Trauma Response

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Cognitive theories that focus on information processing have been the most influential theories of trauma in terms of generating testable hypotheses and directing current treatments (Salmon & Bryant, 2002). For this reason, we will attempt to critically evaluate this area of trauma theory with reference to other popular theories, the research evidence, clinical practice and developmental factors.

Information Processing Theories of Trauma Response

Information-processing models relating to trauma are based on Lang’s (1977) suggested that emotions are stored in memory networks containing information about stimuli, responses, and meanings regarding emotional events. Lang proposed that patients with anxiety disorders have unusually coherent and stable fear memories that are easily activated by stimulus elements that may be ambiguous but bear some resemblance to the contents of the memory (Brewin & Holmes, 2003). Adapting this theory to PTSD, Foa et al. (1989) proposed that following a traumatic event, a fear network is formed that stores information about sources of threat. These networks contain trauma related representations strongly associated with fear that can be activated by external or internal cues. They also contain a set of responses to threatening stimuli and situations that produce a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that proved adaptive during the traumatic incident. In exploring fear reactions, Foa and Kozak (1986b) cite that what differentiates PTSD from anxiety disorders is that the trauma is of such significance that it violates and destabilizes the individual’s basic sense of safety. As a result, experiences that previously felt safe become associated with danger and subsequent fear and terror. Also, fear networks in PTSD have a much lower threshold of activation, as well as a bias towards searching for and identifying threatening information. These discoveries led to increased interest in how interventions could be used to change thinking in individuals with trauma reactions and reduce PTSD through cognitive-behavioural therapy (Steele & Malchiodi, 2012).

Over the past 30 years a number of cognitive theories of trauma adaptation have sprang from the information processing model (Benight, 2012). Some of the most popular include the emotional processing theory (Foa & Meadows, 1997), the Ehlers and Clark (2000) model and the dual representation theory by Brewin et al. (1996). Each theory emphasizes different processes but their common primary theoretical premise is that trauma adaptation requires cognitive assimilation of the traumatic event. If the event is not processed in an appropriate way, psychopathology will result (Brewin & Holmes, 2003).

A Critical Perspective on Information Processing Theories

The need for integrating traumatic information is also highlighted by competing social-cognitive theories of trauma, like Janoff-Bulmann’s (1992) theory of shattered assumptions. However, according to social-cognitive theories, the difficulty in achieving this is not attributed in the characteristics of the trauma memory itself (as is the case with the information-processing model) but on the conflict and reconciliation of the traumatic information with previous beliefs. On the other hand, while information processing theories focus on the encoding, storage, and recall of fear-inducing events and their associated stimuli/responses, conditioning theory provides a good account of how associated stimuli and trauma cues acquire the ability to elicit fear through learned association (Keane et al., 1985). The latter theory further explains how avoidance of the conditioned stimuli is reinforced by a reduction in fear, leading to the maintenance of PTSD.

The extent to which current information processing theories can adequately account for childhood PTSD is unclear (Brewin & Holmes, 2003). Existing theories have been developed in the...
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