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Part 3: What Is Psychological Trauma? When Trauma Shatters Our Basic Assumptions

July 26th, 2016

The following has been reprinted with permission from the July 2016 Correctional Oasis, Volume 13, Issue 7.

A prior version of this article was published in the Correctional Oasis, November-December 2005 issue. This topic of basic assumptions being shattered when people are victimized by traumatic experiences was first addressed and studied in a systematic way by Ronnie Janoff-Bulman in 1989.

When CO Smith was caught in his first “large group disturbance” (aka a riot) in the chow hall, he dissociated and froze. Surrounded by 200 offenders who were throwing around food, plates, kicks, and punches, he remained transfixed. The last conscious thought that flashed through his mind before he “checked out” was that this was the end of the road for him. When he came to himself, partly due to the ear-piercing din in the room, and partly due to staff surrounding him and asking him if he was okay, he couldn’t believe that he had just stood there. Deep shame about not responding as trained washed over him. “I never expected to just freeze!” was all he could think. How could he explain to anyone (including himself), what happened, and why he let his partner across the room down by not taking action as he should have? CO Smith felt so defeated, he started to question his courage and his ability to do his job. The taunts and biting comments of his coworkers in reaction to his freezing did not help any. His view of himself as a warrior lay shattered in the depths of his mind. In its place now stood the specter of a coward.

Exposure to a traumatic stressor can shake us to the core, rattling us emotionally and causing an earthquake in the do-main of cherished core beliefs about ourselves and about life.

When trauma tears our “safety bubble” apart—our expectation that we or our loved ones will be protected from harm—it can also decimate our expectation that we will rise to the occasion and deal effectively with whatever life dishes out to us, or that what happens to us will be fair, or that life events will follow a logical or comprehensible sequence.

What can happen instead is that our basic positive assumptions in areas of importance to us are shredded and re-placed with opposites regarding our beliefs about our efficacy and our invulnerability, our beliefs about other people’s trustworthiness or benevolence, and our beliefs about the meaningfulness of life in general.

Here are some core beliefs and expectations which can be negatively and extremely distorted by trauma.

Expectations of personal invincibility and immortality. Assumptions such as, “I can handle whatever comes my way,” or “Nothing bad will happen to me,” may be replaced with “I was overwhelmed,” or “I almost died.”

Expectations of justice and fairness. Assumptions such as “Justice always wins in the end,” or “If you do the right thing you’ll be rewarded,” may be replaced with “It makes no difference how decent of a human being you try to be; you’ll still get railroaded,” or “The crooks end up getting away with murder.”

Expectations of predictability. Assumptions such as, “My life is unfolding as planned,” or “I know what’s coming next,” may be replaced with “Life is chaotic, totally out of control,” or “My life is in shambles—all that matters to me is gone.”

Expectations that people will be “good.” Assumptions such as, “People are basically good /decent /honest,” may be replaced with “People are con artists /thugs /evil.”

Expectations that life events will make sense. Assumptions such as, “If you’re a good guy bad things won’t happen to you,” or “If you never smoke, you won’t get lung cancer,” may be replaced with “Bad things will hit you out of the blue, whether you’ve been good or bad,” or “It doesn’t matter how healthy you try to live, you can still get sick.”

The shattering of these basic assumptions about safety, predictability, justice and meaningfulness of life can leave trauma survivors in a state of bewilderment. It is as if they find themselves in a game where the rules have changed, but they can’t make sense of these new rules, and there’s no one available to explain the changes to them.

The journey of healing after trauma involves (among other components) the ability to repair these shattered core beliefs by moderating the extreme pendulum swing caused by trauma. Traumatized people who get better learn to view their crushing experiences through the lens of a more balanced and accurate assessment than the all-or-nothing perspective of traumatic stress. They pull back from overgeneralizations and, instead, learn to moderate their thinking. They understand—and accept—that there may be a degree of randomness in life, but that there is also a degree of predictability, justice, and order. They accept that “bad” circumstances that happen to them may also be incubators of opportunities and new beginnings. Sometimes, instead of “Why me?” they learn to say, “Why NOT me?” And they choose to trust again that there is still goodness in this world, and that it is “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Suggested further reading:

  1. Janoff-Bulman, R. (1989). Assumptive Worlds and the Stress of Traumatic Events: Applications of the Schema Construct. Social Cognition, 7, Special Issue: Stress, Coping, and Social Cognition, 113-136.

  2. Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). Shattered assumptions. Simon and Schuster.

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Corrections Fatigue & Corrections Fulfillment — In A Nutshell

July 8th, 2016

Corrections Fatigue

Corrections Fatigue is a term I coined in the year 2000. Corrections Fatigue is a broad “umbrella” term that aims to capture the combined and snowballing effects of repeated exposure to an array of occupational stressors that are essentially unavoidable in corrections work settings. Here is the latest definition:

Corrections Fatigue is the cumulative negative change over time of corrections professionals’ PERSONALITY, HEALTH and FUNCTIONING, and of the CORRECTIONS WORKFORCE CULTURE, as a result of insufficient and/or unhealthy individual and/or organizational coping strategies and/or wellness resources necessary for healthy adaptation to the demands of corrections work.

Said more simply, Corrections Fatigue is the gradual and progressive wear-and-tear of body, soul and spirit of staff as they repeatedly experience high stress workplace events of various types during the course of their careers. Corrections Fatigue affects individuals, teams, and eventually even the entire workforce culture of corrections institutions and offices.

Negative changes characteristic of Corrections Fatigue may interact, resulting in self-reinforcing consequences—the proverbial “vicious cycle”—with effects/outcomes of Corrections Fatigue becoming causes/sources of additional Corrections Fatigue impinging upon the corrections workforce.

When corrections workplace cultures become unhealthy as a result of sufficient numbers of individual staff being affected in this manner, then counterproductive values, core beliefs, thinking patterns, and behaviors become the norm. Staff in these workforce cultures may even become resigned to working under such conditions, accepting them as “the way we do things in corrections.”

The impact of Corrections Fatigue exists on continuum of severity from non-existent or mild to extreme. Corrections Fatigue is NOT a clinical term. It is not a disease, although at the more severe end of the spectrum, staff who display Corrections Fatigue signs may be suffering from health conditions.

The workplace stressors that affect the development and progression of Corrections Fatigue can be conceptualized as falling in three broad categories: (a) operational (related to operations, such as staffing, shift work, work load, and certain policies and procedures); (b) organizational (related to the workplace culture and managing people—whether employees or offenders, such as interpersonal conflict, and certain management practices and leadership styles); and (c) traumatic (related to exposure to incidents of violence, injury and death, whether directly or indirectly).

Stressors related to staff’s personal lives, perhaps preceding their corrections career, may additionally constitute areas of vulnerability and risk that interact with workplace stressors.

To measure Corrections Fatigue in a quantitative way for groups of staff, Desert Waters’ researchers constructed the Corrections Fatigue Status Assessment, a psychometrically sound assessment instrument, now in its fifth iteration (CFSA-v5; Denhof and Spinaris, 2014). According to the CFSA-v5, Corrections Fatigue affects nine distinct but related dimensions of functioning of the corrections workforce. These are, in alphabetical order: Behavioral Functioning, Leadership Supportiveness, Meaning, Moral Injury, Morale, Outlook/Disposition, Psychological Safety, Staff Reliability, and Staff Supportiveness. And as was stated earlier, when these areas are negatively impacted, they in turn become the source of further Corrections Fatigue for a workforce.

As shown through the CFSA-v5[1] and through other studies[2], research supports the notion that a broad spectrum of consequences of Corrections Fatigue exist in varying degrees in the corrections workforce, in both institution and community corrections environments. These consequences must be increasingly acknowledged, studied, and under-stood. When they are minimized or overlooked, they end up permeating and shaping the workplace culture in lasting negative ways, culminating in reduced staff wellness, substance abuse, decreased job performance, employee misconduct, absenteeism, high turnover, and increased staff suicide risk.

Corrections Fulfillment

Corrections Fulfillment is a term I coined in 2006, to describe the combined outcomes of healthy professional and personal practices of corrections staff and of healthy corrections work-place cultures. Here is the latest definition:

Corrections Fulfillment is the cumulative result of corrections professionals’ EFFECTIVE COPING STRATEGIES and WORK ENGAGEMENT, and the POSITIVE QUALITY of the corrections workforce culture.

And as effects of Corrections Fatigue become causes of more negative outcomes, similarly, Corrections Fulfillment has a positive snowball effect as well. Increases in Corrections Fulfillment permeate workforce cultures, creating a positive and supportive workforce climate where resilience-promoting behaviors are practiced, shared, and modeled. This facilitates the personal growth and professional development of corrections professionals, which in turn can promote more Fulfillment.

Corrections Fulfillment starts with a reduction in negative changes associated with Corrections Fatigue. It then moves to increased resilience (the capacity to bounce back after negative experiences), increased well-being, and increased job satisfaction. And at the peak of Fulfillment, staff may experience Post-traumatic Growth, their development as people and as professionals after facing traumatic events. Post-traumatic growth may involve, among other types of transformation, an increased appreciation for relationships, deepening spirituality, increased capacity for compassion, and increased gratitude for and appreciation of life.

Reduction and prevention of Corrections Fatigue and the promotion of Corrections Fulfillment require persistent, multi-faceted, and system-wide improvement programs that target change at both the organizational level (“top down”) and the individual staff level (“bottom up”).

Such improvement efforts encourage and model sound core beliefs and values, positive styles of staff interaction with both other staff and with offenders, and health-promoting self-care practices. They include the provision of affordable and effective wellness resources, ongoing staff wellness assessments, and education on a regular basis on data-driven resilience-promoting strategies and wellness-promoting behaviors. The aim of these interventions is to increase understanding of strategies that can reduce Corrections Fatigue, and implement ways to attain and maintain Corrections Fulfillment across an agency—staff well-being, work engagement, and quality of life.

We at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach are dedicated to continue to develop evidence-based educational materials and interventions for corrections professionals and their families. The overall well-being and functioning of corrections staff both at work and in their personal lives is our goal.

[1] Denhof, M.D., & Spinaris, C.G. (2014a). Corrections Fatigue Status Assessment—version 5 http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/CFSA_V4_Data_Sheet.pdf.

[2] Denhof, M.D., & Spinaris, C.G. (2014b). The Violence Injury and Death Exposure Scale (VIDES) http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/VIDES_Data_Sheet.pdf.

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