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dcyphr | Childhood Trauma and Personal Mastery: Their Influence on Emotional Reactivity to Everyday Events in a Community Sample of Middle-Aged Adults

Abstract

Using data from 30-day daily dairies, the authors investigated if self-reports of childhood trauma were associated with variability in daily wellbeing and emotional reactivity to positive and negative daily events. Childhood trauma was associated with lower overall levels of wellbeing with increased variability. They found that emotional reactivity facilitated strong increases and decreases in wellbeing in those reporting childhood traumas in reaction to positive and negative events, respectively. This suggests that mastery increases sensitivity to positive and negative events. Thus, childhood trauma may lead to poorer midlife (and later) health by disturbing perception and reaction to daily events. Mastery may also have a different meaning for those with childhood trauma. 

Introduction

Childhood trauma can have effects lasting into midlife or old age including lower levels of wellbeing and less emotional support. A pathway linking childhood trauma to day-to-day health in midlife of particular interest is social-emotional regulation and wellbeing. Social-emotional regulation is defined in the study as (the ability to adjust) changes in positive and negative emotions in response to daily positive and negative events. Wellbeing is defined as an individual’s level of positive or negative affect in response to a neutral day (nothing good or bad happened). Social-emotional regulation and wellbeing make up components of daily life that accumulate over the lifespan and have the potential to affect health developments. 


Pathways Linking Childhood Trauma to Health

There are multiple social-emotional pathways regulating long-lasting health effects of trauma. Trauma can alter perceptions (negative appraisals of neutral events or hypersensitivity to stressors) and coping strategies of daily life events and result in less goal-directed behavior, for example. These impairments in the context of dealing with daily life can worsen over time and from poor parental relationships and early life adversity. Early life adversity can lead to increased sensitivity to both stressors and positive events, differentiating between individuals and known as “differential susceptibility”. Emotional reactivity may be able to heighten resilience in the context of positive events (i.e. completing a fulfilling project at work) as well as decrease resilience due to an increased sensitivity to adversity.  


Mastery as a Key Resilience Factor for Confronting Childhood Trauma 

Mastery, or perceived control, involves a sense that one has control (agency, self-efficacy)

over a situation. It has been shown to decrease emotional reactivity and to stressful events and protect wellbeing, likely from the employment of better coping strategies (i.e., turning to a support network). The authors defined mastery as a tool for those with childhood trauma to mitigate emotional reactivity from (and decrease reports of) daily negative events. Mastery could also allow for positive events to be more uplifting in those with childhood trauma. The role of mastery in childhood trauma is unclear as its protective effects could be diminished after experiencing a stressor. The production (and perception) of positive events is ultimately decided by the person as an active agent, which is amplified in the context of childhood trauma. 


Method

782 participants recruited from the ASU Live Project completed self-report questionnaires about early family life, personality, and traumatic and stressful experiences. A quarter of the sample (approx. 200 people) participated in a videotaped stress-inducing experience. Another quarter of the sample completed a 30-day daily diary about positive and negative emotions and experiences. A multilevel logistic regression model was used to determine whether childhood trauma increased or decreased the likelihood of experiencing a negative or positive event over the course of a day. A multilevel linear regression model was then used to evaluate whether childhood trauma moderated emotional reactivity to daily negative and positive experiences. 


Results

Higher levels of childhood trauma were associated with more reports of (and more variability of) negative and positive affect and lower levels of mastery. They also predicted stronger increases and declines in positive and negative emotions from positive and negative social experiences, respectively. Mastery, in the context of trauma, increased emotional reactivity. 


Discussion 

The results explored how social-emotional regulation (mastery, wellbeing, and emotional reactivity) may be a pathway linking childhood trauma to health consequences later in life. Patterns of disturbances in responding to daily events as mediated by trauma may explain this as they can compound over the course of one’s life. Moreover, mastery does not function to protect against negative daily stressors in those with childhood trauma, functioning to exacerbate emotional reactivity to events. Social relationship interventions and mastery interventions meant to organize what kinds of situations are (and not) within one’s control may be helpful for those suffering from childhood trauma. More research into the underpinnings of daily-life disturbances mediated from childhood trauma is needed.