Exploration of explicit and implicit emotion in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse
Background: Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has the potential to compromise the socioemotional development of the victim resulting in an increased vulnerability to difficulties regulating emotions and one’s sense of self. Emotion is thought to play a key part in a number of psychological disorders which CSA survivors are at increased risk of developing. A better understanding of the basic emotions experienced in this population and emotion regulation will inform current treatment. Aims: This research aimed to develop a better understanding of the emotions experienced by survivors of CSA and the relationship between “implicit” and explicit emotions and psychopathology. Method: Two empirical studies were conducted. Study 1 employed a cross-sectional consecutive case series design involving 109 survivors of CSA. Participants completed a set of measures relating to basic emotions, emotion regulation and symptoms. Exploratory factor analyses were conducted on the Basic Emotions scale (BES). Regression analyses were used to explore the relationship between emotions experienced, emotion regulation strategies and psychological symptoms. Study 2 examined basic emotions, “implicit disgust self-concept” and psychopathology in a population of CSA survivors (n=26) and a group of individuals currently receiving psychological therapy who reported that they had not experienced childhood trauma (n=25). Participants completed self-report measures pertaining to emotion, emotion regulation, symptoms and cognitive fusion. Participants also completed an implicit association test. Results: Exploratory factor analyses supported the structure of three versions of the BESWeekly, General, and Coping in a sample of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. In all three versions of the scale, disgust explained the largest proportion of variance. The basic emotions of sadness, fear and disgust as well as external dysfunctional coping strategies appear to predict PTSD symptomatology in this sample. The results of Study 2 also support the finding that self-reported disgust is prominent in the emotion profile of CSA survivors. Implicit disgust self-concept was not significantly correlated with other emotions or psychopathology. However, implicit disgust self-concept was found to be significantly associated with cognitive fusion. Discussion: Psychotherapeutic approaches for survivors of childhood sexual abuse should address the emotional experience of this population. In particular, these findings suggest that sadness and disgust should be targeted in therapy.