Academic journal article European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Attention Biases in Female Survivors of Chronic Interpersonal Violence: Relationship to Trauma-Related Symptoms and Physiology

Academic journal article European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Attention Biases in Female Survivors of Chronic Interpersonal Violence: Relationship to Trauma-Related Symptoms and Physiology

Article excerpt


Attention biases in female survivors of chronic interpersonal violence: relationship to trauma-related symptoms and physiology

Jonathan DePierro1*, Wendy D'Andrea1 and Nnamdi Pole2

1Psychology Department, The New School for Social Research, New York, NY, USA; 2Psychology Department, Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA


Background : Exposure to chronic interpersonal violence (IPV) has been associated with psychiatric impairment; however, few studies have investigated attention processes and psychophysiology in this population.

Objective : We investigated self-report and physiological correlates of attention biases in 27 IPV-exposed women.

Method : Participants completed self-report measures of trauma history, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and dissociation; were monitored physiologically during baseline; and responded to an emotional dot probe task.

Results : Participants showed bias away from positive and anxiety words, and toward IPV words. Lower baseline respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and higher skin conductance levels were associated with bias away from anxiety cues. Greater total PTSD symptoms were associated with bias toward IPV cues, and greater PTSD intrusion and avoidance symptoms were associated with lower RSA. Individuals exposed to more types of trauma had lower heart rates.

Conclusions : These data extend the research on emotion-cognition interactions in PTSD and other anxiety disorders to chronic IPV survivors, in part confirming avoidance and intrusion symptom and attention bias relations found in studies. The present work also draws attention to a group that tends to experience a range of severe symptoms associated with apparent blunting in autonomic activity, and suggests that self-report may not be sensitive to physiological and attention alterations in chronic IPV samples.

Keywords: Posttraumatic stress disorder; interpersonal violence; psychophysiology; attention bias

For the abstract or full text in other languages, please see Supplementary files under Article Tools online

Received: 11 July 2012; Revised: 19 January 2013; Accepted: 19 January 2013; Published: 4 March 2013

European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2013. © 2013 Jonathan DePierro et al. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License (, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Citation: European Journal of Psychotraumatology 2013, 4: 19135 -

Interpersonal violence (IPV) is more likely than other forms of trauma to lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Scott, 2007). IPV survivors also report difficulties with attention and emotion regulation (van der Kolk, Roth, Pelcovitz, Sunday, & Spinazzola, 2005), have more complex and severe symptoms than survivors of non-IPV traumas (Ford, Stockton, Kaltman, & Green, 2006), and evidence both too much and too little autonomic activity (Corrigan, Fisher, & Nutt, 2011). However, few studies have examined inter-relationships among PTSD, attention, and physiology in IPV survivors. Concurrently, the literature on attention in PTSD (e.g. Bryant & Harvey, 1997; Elsesser, Sartory, & Tackenberg, 2004) has yielded mixed findings, perhaps due to variability in PTSD symptom and trauma exposure. The present study will attempt to fill gaps in the literature by examining relations among attention bias, self-report, and physiology in female survivors of IPV and may help disentangle inter-related attentional and physiological mechanisms that could undergird PTSD symptoms.

Attention biases for threat in PTSD

The vigilance-avoidance hypothesis (Mogg, Bradley, Miles, & Dixon, 2004) of anxiety disorders suggests that affected individuals show both vigilance toward (selective attention or attention bias toward) and avoidance of (attention bias away from) anxiety reminders. …

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