Krohner is working within the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab headed by Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, and her work there focuses on emotion, cognition, and relational factors in complex trauma.
Krohner spoke with Research Matters about the connection between trauma and overall health, the importance of cultural-focused research, and her non-hierarchical approach to teaching.
RM: Could you say a bit about your academic journey? What was your path to becoming a Postdoctoral Fellow here at NSSR?
SK: I graduated with a major in Psychology from undergrad. I became interested in research, and ended up in a neuropsychology lab at a large rehabilitation institute in Detroit, doing research on traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The population there is mostly Black, mostly lower income so in the process of collecting all of this data, I saw how much social factors and social disadvantage, the lack of support systems, whether that’s family or more systematic, impacted people’s trajectory of recovery.
I was accepted to Wayne State University’s clinical psychology doctoral program, and worked in the Stress & Health lab [for a PhD in Clinical Psychology], working with Professor Mark Lumley….[M]y graduate training concentrated on developing and implementing emotion-focused and psychodynamic interventions for people who had [chronic pain and psychosomatic conditions]. In the course of graduate school, I became increasingly interested in the role of trauma in health, and I wound up developing an intervention for my dissertation study for individuals who have chronic pain and a significant history of childhood adversity. That work, along with my clinical training, fed my interest in complex trauma, and so when considering positions for postdoctoral fellowship, I was looking to join a team focused on trauma, which was a pivot away from my background in more traditional health psychology.
That’s how I wound up here with Wendy D’Andrea’s lab. Her research mostly focuses on complex trauma and dissociation, , studying psychophysiology and affect. I was excited about her work, as I had become interested in transitioning from applied interventions-based research to research that was more focused on mechanisms—to get atthe why and the how of things that underlie psychopathology and the relationship between earlier life experiences and adult mental health. The New School has a reputation for being progressive and oriented toward social justice in a way that was also compelling to me so I thought it would be a good fit in terms of my values as well.
RM: As you’ve explained, your doctoral research focused on how psychosocial influences, especially factors like trauma and social adversity, impact health. Can you say more about the link between our experiences in early childhood and overall health later in life?
SK: There was a landmark study conducted by V J Felliti about 30 years ago finding that experiencing childhood adversity…is predictive of a host of physical and also psychological difficulties in adulthood. My graduate research focused on how these experiences can contribute to physical problems or illness.
In the field of psychology now, the most commonly available treatments for people with chronic pain or psychosomatic conditions are based in cognitive-behavioral theory, and they focus primarily on accepting and managing pain. This approach views chronic pain as something that is lifelong and something to manage, and contrasts with the model that I have worked from, that views some types of chronic pain as being driven by the central nervous system and quite changeable. This approach is based on evidence that childhood experiences of attachment-disruption can lead to these chronic, repeated experiences of suppressing rather than experiencing one’s emotions and the evidence shows that emotional suppression is associated with symptoms. It’s a model that is more psychological or brain-based in terms of what produces and maintains pain, and so the course of treatment aims to increase insight for patients about the link between emotions and pain, and to experience rather than avoid emotions., including: The goal is to encourage recognition that the way that they’ve been managing emotions has a cost, and may not be the most adaptive strategy for their current context, and encourages them to adopt a different pattern where there is more openness to emotional experience.
RM: You’ve also done important work on stress and sexual victimization across different genders and cultural backgrounds. In what way should we approach traumatic experiences differently based on cultural and social context?
SK: The work that you’re referring to was conducted in a population of Arab American women.
In that study, we looked at whether a disclosure-based interview would have an effect on sexual health outcomes, such as sexual self-esteem and satisfaction.,. We found that it actually did have some benefits, and the women who participated reported that it wasa really important experience for them to feel like we could talk openly about sexual experiences, especially those that had never shared with anybody else.
We were also interested in how cultural factors impact Arab American women who had sexual victimization experiences. This was an exploratory study, which found that women who had more conflict between their identities as Arab and as American, or who felt like they couldn’t talk openly with the people in their life, were worse off in terms of psychological and physical health.
We were interested in studying this population because there are very few studies that have included Arab Americans in general, and even fewer focused on women. This is important because there can be a tension between having sort of broad generalizations about what is healthy for people, or how experiences impact people, and that doesn’t consider these cultural or social group differences which might affect those relationships. That’s where more cross-cultural and cultural-focused research can help to identify cases in which a theory or a model might not apply and what might be particularly beneficial for a subgroup or minority population.
RM: What does your current research within the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab focus on?
SK: I’m currently working on a large project for which the data has already been collected, and I’m working towards analysis and publication. The data set is from an NIH-funded project on what is called Blunted and Discordant Affect (BADA).
For some background, most treatments for trauma and characterizations of trauma…are characterized mostly by hyperarousal [and hypervigilance] in terms of affect and physiology.
But, for people who have complex trauma with repeated exposures, that are attachment-based or happened in childhood, they tend to show up in clinical settings with a different presentation, characterized by blunted or discordant emotional responses. That might look like people not reacting when they perhaps should be to situations where there’s threat and shut-down instead, or there’s discordant reactions -a mismatch between the situation and their emotional reaction.
So, the project aimed to validate that this is a distinct subtype of trauma reactions, and to characterize this subtype in terms of magnitude and neural and physiological mechanisms. My piece involves looking at various forms of discordance, for example, how is someone’s physiology—what their body is telling us about their response–different or mismatched to what they’re saying is going on with them, or to their brain activity? Or how do people with trauma histories handle conflicting feelings in relationships, and how does having these conflicts impact physiology? Or you might find verbal disfluencies, where someone is talking about an earlier relationship and switch into present tense or leave out key information as if you already know who you’re talking about, a sort of time discordance, as if the person is experiencing the situation now rather than relating to it as a coherent thing that happened in the past.
RM: You taught Research Methods in Fall 2022 for Psychology MA students. Could you tell us a bit about the class and your pedagogical approach?
SK: I’m working with Master’s students [and] this class is essentially their first experience developing and running a study from the ground up.
It’s a challenging class because you’re expected to be able to develop an idea for a study, collect data, and then have it analyzed and presented in a paper and a conference poster within the span of few months. At least half of the class is devoted to problem solving, strategizing about methodology and data collection, and talking about issues as they come up. The other side of it is lecture, where we’re talking about structure and organizing principles for experimental studies. It’s all quantitative.
I like for classes to feel very collaborative and non-hierarchical. I don’t want students to feel intimidated by the content or by it being their first experience. I want it to be all about learning, with the understanding that there’s going to be mistakes that happen, and that no questions are bad questions. I’m also trying to emphasize as much as possible peer-to-peer work where students are looking at one another’s work, developing the ability to critique one another’s work and get feedback in a way that’s professional and helpful. I’m hoping students come away feeling capable and excited about doing research.