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ESRC SWDTC Studentship: Using virtual reality to understand and facilitate resilience in adult survivors of childhood psychological trauma - a biobehavioural approach

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  • Full or part time
    Dr A Karl
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

The University of Exeter is pleased to be offering a total of up to 22 ESRC funded 1+3 or +3 studentships, including any collaborative projects, as part of the South West Doctoral Training Centre (SWDTC) for entry in 2016-17. Within the DTC, the College of Life and Environmental Sciences is currently inviting applications for the project entitled: Using virtual reality to understand and facilitate resilience in adult survivors of childhood psychological trauma - a biobehavioural approach. This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding. Studentships will be awarded on the basis of merit and strategic fit with the aims of the DTC.

For eligible UK/EU students the full time studentship will cover fees and an annual Research Council stipend of at least £14,057 (2015-16 rate) for up to three years (+3 award) or four years (1+3 award).

For the 1+3 studentships we would require you to register initially on one of the following Masters programmes:
MSc Psychological Research Methods (Streatham campus)
MSc Social and Organisational Psychology (Streatham campus)

For the +3 studentships we would require you to register on the MPhil/PhD Psychology (Streatham campus).
Applicants are encouraged to discuss their applications with the supervisors prior to submission.


Dr. Anke Karl Psychology (University of Exeter)

Dr. Heather O’Mahen Psychology (University of Exeter)

Project Description:

Although existing treatments for PTSD after psychological trauma have been found to be effective, these treatments are not designed to meet the needs of individuals with complex childhood trauma and comorbid depression (Cloitre, 2015). These individuals struggle with high levels of self-criticism and low-levels of self-compassion and poor interpersonal support; difficulties which maintain PTSD (Ehlers & Clark, 2000; Brewin et al., 2000) and negatively affect an individual’s ability to engage in exposure based treatments because they are perceived to be too stressful and upsetting Research is needed to investigate ways to ameliorate the negative effects of self-criticism and poor self-compassion on both emotional and interpersonal functioning, with the goal to also improve treatment engagement.

Our group has conducted recent experimental research investigating the impact of self-compassion inductions on both physiological and psychological indicators of emotion regulation. We have found that an audio-guided self-compassion induction reduces physiological arousal, increases parasympathetic activation (indicating better emotion regulation capacity), reduces withdrawal and increases approach motivation (as indicated by neural EEG pattern) and increases feeling of connectedness and willingness to affiliate with others (Kirschner et al., 2013, 2014). Exciting new research has also shown that the beneficial effect of such a compassion exercise can be enhanced using virtual reality; especially if the individual giving or receiving compassion embodies a virtual reality avatar (Falconer et al., 2014). The proposed PhD aims to extend these studies and focus on the neural, physiological and psychological mechanisms through which self-compassion and interpersonal effectiveness function. These studies will provide important information about how to refine interventions incorporating self-compassion approaches. It aims to conduct 3 studies. The first study aims to investigate neural and psychophsyiological correlates of changes in self-compassion, emotion regulation and social functioning in individuals receiving a new group treatment that enhances trauma-focussed and interpersonal therapy by a compassion- focussed approach in our AccEPT clinic. The second study aims at understanding the neural and psychophysiological correlates of embodied compassion using virtual reality in an analogue sample of self-critical individuals. The third study aims to applying the methods of study 2 in a sample of PTSD patients with complex childhood trauma and depression.

For further information and for eligibility criteria please visit:

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