An investigation of "counterdissociation" phenomena in therapists treating sexual abuse survivors

Lynn A. Paulus (1997)

This study investigated "counterdissociative" phenomena. This term was coined by Shay (1992) to describe the defensive process that therapists use to protect themselves from overwhelming affect in the presence of survivors who describe traumatic experiences. Participants were randomly selected from a mailing list of therapists belonging to the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Two hundred eighteen participants met the criteria for inclusion. Each participant completed demographic questions investigating therapists' professional training and clinical experience. In addition, participants rated their exposure, both personal and professional, to traumatic material. Finally, participants completed the Impact of Events Scale (IES, Horowitz et al., 1979) and the Trauma Symptom Checklist-40, Dissociative Subscale (TSC-40, Briere & Runtz, 1992). Hierarchical Sets Regression Analyses of Variance were used to investigate the relationship between therapist support factors (i.e. supervision, peer group support, etc.), work setting variables, credentials and training, personal trauma history and counterdissociative phenomena. No significant correlations were found between predictor variables (i.e. support factors, personal history of abuse factors) and the results on the dependent measures. The sample of respondents proved to be a very homogeneous group. The participants were primarily a group of seasoned therapists with 64% having doctoral degrees and an overall mean of 12 years experience working with sexual abuse survivors. Two thirds of the participants were male. Of those who acknowledged a personal history of sexual abuse, 100% had engaged in their own therapy and few reported symptoms of counterdissociation. The results of this study are in contrast to other recent research which found that therapists' caseload, professional support and personal history of trauma were positively correlated with avoidant and intrusive symptoms using the IES Scale (Bober, 1995; Battley, 1995; Kassam-Adams, 1994; Monroe, 1991). The current study may have important implications for understanding the resiliency of therapists who continue to do this work effectively, and who function with minimal secondary traumatization symptoms. More research is needed to understand how the specifics of advanced clinical experience enhance therapists' work with survivors while also preserving therapists' own mental health.