The Psychology of Trauma

Amherst College Science Center

A series by the Peer Advocates for Sexual Respect and the Psychology Department

The Amherst College Department of Health Educations put on a video series inviting psychology professors to answer questions about trauma. Professors from the Psychology Department were asked various questions regarding trauma; their responses are summarized below. There are also links to the videos and resources.

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A plug for a PA event this week: “This year to close out Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Peer Advocates and Health Education have created a multi-part culminating event called “Lights On for SAAMherst.” On Wednesday, April 28 (with a planned rain date of Thursday, April 29), we are planning on having a 3-part closing event and we would love to have all members of the Amherst Community participate!”

What is trauma and how does it show up in the body?

When we experience something stressful or traumatic, we release cortisol, a stress hormone, for a quick reaction. This spike of cortisol tenses the muscles, speeds up heart rate. This is common with one stressful or traumatic experience. If you have many stressful experiences throughout your life, rather than a spike of cortisol, our body blunts our response to stress. So over time with chronic stress exposure, our body loses the fight or flight response. While these are done to protect the body from negative effects of cortisol, they are associated with externalizing and antisocial behaviors, like aggression.

Click for the link for the first video in the Psychology of Trauma Series.

How does trauma show up in your research?

Professor Totton is a social psychologist and stereotypes and prejudice researcher. In her research, she conducts interviews of trans individuals which often focus on experiences of momentary and sustained trauma in harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. In her research, Professor Totton has found that the trauma experienced by trans individuals can be devalued or ignored by others simply because of their gender identities. This underscores the need for intersectional and inclusive approaches to trauma-informed care.

Professor Schulkind is a cognitive psychologist who studies autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory is memory for the events from your life, including traumatic experiences. There are conflicting views among psychologists and researchers on how people remember traumatic events. Some people think traumatic memories are remembered in great detail and this is why they can become intrusive, such as in people with PTSD. Other people who believe the opposite, that when comparing memories for traumatic events with memories for everyday events, memory for traumatic events is more fragmented and sometimes even lost, below the level of consciousness.

Professor McQuade is a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents. In her research, trauma is a variable that could lead to impairments in children and adolescents. It can affect sense of self, capacity to regulate emotions, perception of others and their relationships. Trauma can also lead to a variety of different kinds of psychological disorders, such as PTSD, increased likelihood of depression and anxiety, or other kinds of antisocial disorders. Trauma is something that can serve as a type of adversity or stressor.

Professor Palmquist is a developmental psychologist. Her research explores how intergenerational trauma can affect children and their outcomes as adults. She looks at how earlier generations can pass along susceptibility to negative outcomes related to trauma.

Click for the link for the second video in the Psychology of Trauma Series.

What factors promote resilience or healing from trauma?

As an adult clinical psychologist, Professor Kneeland has conducted research that found when people believe they have personal control over their emotions, they are more likely to have healthy emotion regulation and coping strategies. Professor Kneeland’s research is trying to clarify the relationship between trauma exposure and disorders like PTSD. Trauma exposure is surprisingly high during the lifetime; about 70 or 80% of people will experience a trauma in their lifetimes and yet the vast majority of those people do not go on to then develop PTSD. She studies cognitive styles and ways of thinking after a trauma exposure that can put someone more or less at risk for developing this more prolonged trauma response or PTSD.

Professor McQuade researches social support as it promotes resilience after trauma. People with support systems, whether that is family or friends are more likely to have better coping mechanisms, not develop secondary diagnoses like PTSD, and tend to avoid self harming and substance abuse. Safe places to process trauma also promote resilience, whether that is through a therapeutic context or not. In therapy, people can process some of the assumptions that they’ve developed related to the trauma, which often can include blaming themselves for what happened, how dangerous the world is. That kind of processing of a person’s assumptions about the event can help a person move past the event to live with the event, and to not let it ruin their life.

Click for the link for the third video in the Psychology of Trauma Series.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to know how to best support a survivor?

  1. Don’t be afraid to intervene. The bystander effect says that sometimes we might see something or hear something that makes us uncomfortable, and we may not intervene, even in emergency situations. We might believe that it’s not actually an emergency, or because we think that someone else is going to help. So the first step is be an active participant, don’t be afraid to ask questions and intervene if something seems off to you.
  2. Don’t blame the victim. In social psychology there is something known as belief in a just world. We all desperately want to believe that the world is a good place, and that if you behave in good ways, good things will also happen to you. Unfortunately, this means that we might be more inclined to blame people for bad things that happened to them. Understanding the propensity for belief in a just world can help us to offset victim blaming. One crucial aspect that you can take as a support system for someone who is a survivor is to recognize that tendency for people to blame the victim, and help to offset that wherever you can.
  3. Set aside your own feelings. The initial conversation that you have with someone is bound to be difficult. You’re likely to feel a complex set of emotions, fear, anger, sadness when you hear about someone else’s traumatic experience. All that is okay! You feel how you feel and shouldn’t try and deny how you feel. But in the moment, try to focus on the feelings of the person you’re trying to support. It’s hard, but I think that’s really, really valuable to try and make yourself available to that person. Once that conversation is over it’s important for you to seek support because it’s going to be a difficult experience for you as well. What’s important in seeking that support that you don’t compromise, the anonymity of the person who’s close to you.
  4. Move with them at their own pace. Don’t feel like you need to force them to talk about their experience and their trauma or feel like you need to be the one to process that trauma with them.
  5. Encourage your friend to seek resources. There are psychologists and psychiatrists and mental health professionals who spend years getting clinical training to treat and address trauma. You can have an important role as supporting your friend or loved one and helping your friend get access to resources, but don’t feel like you have to provide that mental health treatment for them. Devote that energy from planning to just listening to the person.
  6. Be understanding. You are both going through trial and error over what they need. They may not be sure about what they need and try different things. Or they might encourage you to do something and then react negatively to it, rather than getting upset, it’s better to remember that if someone has experienced trauma that often involves forceful removal of their personal autonomy and their choice. Part of being a support network for survivors means re-empowering them with their own autonomy and their own choices. This might look like simply a listening ear, giving them the choice of what they would like to eat that day, or it might be helping them take action related to their trauma. Just remember that this is going to be a long road for them and allow them that time and space for whatever their recovery looks like.

Click for the link for the fourth video in the Psychology of Trauma Series.

Articles about trauma recommended by the professors of the Psychology department

For broad descriptions on effects of stress and adverse life experiences on outcomes, there’s a book by Boyce called “The Orchid and the Dandelion” that explores how different kids react to stress and trauma

For information on intergenerational effects of trauma and stress (as well as prenatal experience): Parade et al (2019), Madigan et al (2017).

A few articles on social support and PTSD are linked here and here.

An article on PTSD and self-concept is linked here.

An article on trauma and emotional regulation is linked here.

An article on trauma and interpersonal relationships is linked here.

Two studies that show how people think about their emotions influences how they regulate their emotions during a stressful event are linked here and here.


On-Campus Resources

Peer Advocates for Sexual Respect


Health Services


Counseling Center


Amherst College Police Department


Religious and Spiritual Life


Title IX Office


Safe Ride


Off-Campus Resources

Center for Women and Community 24/7 Rape Crisis Hotline


Safe Passage 24/7 Intimate Partner Violence Hotline


Cooley Dickinson Hospital


UMass Urgent Care