Emotional Maladjustment: A Vulnerability in the Regulation of Negative Affect Among Indigenous Australians

The Catholic Parish of Moora acknowledge the Yuat people, the Traditional Owners who have walked upon and cared for this land for thousands of years. We acknowledge the continued deep spiritual attachment and relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this country and commit ourselves to the ongoing journey of Reconciliation.

Reverend Father Christian Webb

Parish Priest, Catholic Parish of Moora, Western Australia

“In everything we prove ourselves authentic servants of God; by resolute perseverance … in the Holy Spirit, in a love free of affectation.” Second Corinthians 6:4-6

Abstract

Social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) defines Indigenous health in terms of total wellbeing. In Indigenous psychology wellbeing largely involves factors external to the individual. In contrast to SEWB this research involves the study of emotional maladjustment (EM) that attributes a deficit in wellbeing to factors internal to the individual. EM was theorised to consist of negative affectivity (NA), difficulty in identifying feelings (DIF), insecure attachment, and early maladaptive schemas (EMS). Sixty-seven Nyoongar adults (39 females, 23 males and 5 of undisclosed gender; M = 23.6, SD = 5.9) from the wheatbelt town of Moora in Western Australia, took part in written surveys about their psychological wellbeing. As expected NA is significantly high among the Indigenous participants, and as the measure of negative affect increases, that increase is associated with a greater difficulty in those individuals being able to identify what emotions they are feeling (i.e., DIF). Unexpectedly, insecure attachment styles were neither associated with higher levels of NA nor EMS. EM was defined as a state of unmanageable negative affect, undifferentiated from bodily sensations, and potentially moderated by thoughts of rejection and personal failure. EM indicates a vulnerability in the regulation of NA. The major limitation of this study is the lack of statistical power. Future research would involve confirming the high levels of negative emotionality in the lives of Indigenous Australians and the 3-faceted construct of EM.

Introduction

Emotional Maladjustment (EM) is an affective state characterised by the mismanagement of negative emotion, among Indigenous Australians. As detrimental to emotional wellbeing, the construct is a negative expression of Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) which defines Indigenous health in terms of total wellbeing (Gee, Dudgeon, Shultz, Hart, & Kelly, 2014).

SEWB was coined in the late 1980s (Bamblett, Frederico, Harrison, Jackson, & Lewis, 2012), encompassing physical and mental health, and aspects of the traumatic history associated with the burden of mental health problems (Garvey, 2008). The number of validated measures of SEWB are limited e.g., Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (3-16 years); the Westerman Aboriginal Symptoms Checklist for Youth (13-17 at risk of depression, suicide and anxiety); The Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) (and its abridged version the K6+); and Strong Souls (a measure of anxiety, depression, suicide risk and resilience) (Thomas, Cairney, Gunthorpe, Paradies, & Sayers, 2010).

SEWB is the sum of both internal and external factors. However, as the study of negative constructs of emotional wellbeing is foreign to Indigenous psychology, it is unlikely that the existing scales comprehensively measure SEWB. Even the meaning of expressions such as emotional problems, is unclear (Reser, 1991). The lack of research into negative internal factors of Indigenous mental health is not surprising as SEWB is understood almost exclusively in relation to the experience of intergenerational trauma (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies [AIATSIS], 2016). Any attribution of emotional unwellness seemingly involves only factors external to the individual e.g., discrimination, racism, grief and loss, social exclusion, economic and social disadvantage, incarceration, exposure to violence, substance abuse and physical health problems (Zubrick et al., 2014).

In contrast to SEWB, EM attributes a deficit in wellbeing to factors internal to an individual. Therefore, EM represents an identifiable gap in knowledge about the wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia. This research is particularly important as knowledge leads to resilience (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014) which in turn contributes to increased SEWB.

Background

For 16 years the researcher has served Aboriginal people in Western Australia as house-parent, street-worker, and catholic priest. During this period, the researcher recalls many outbursts of aggressive behaviours marked by the display of negative emotion and intended to communicate personal intent. These episodes also revealed characteristics of alexithymia, where deficient emotional awareness is associated with abnormal interpersonal relating (FeldmanHall, Dalgleish, & Mobbs, 2013).

Pervasive negative emotions can influence perceptions of self and other-concept, and of the world (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988). When the display of negative emotion overrides mindful behaviour, it is assumed that persons’ emotional processing is maladjusted, due to the impact of those pervasive negative perceptions. Hence, EM is conceptualised as inadequate emotional adjustment associated with negative affectivity (NA) and variables such as alexithymia that may influence perception, cognition, and emotional regulation

Emotional Maladjustment, Negative Affectivity, and Behaviour

EM is thought to be a poorly managed emotional state that represents a vulnerability in the regulation of negative affect. A literature review of emotional maladjustment and negative affect disclosed patterns of association. For example (a) emotional regulation difficulties/maladaptation are found to be associated with elevated negative affectivity (Connelly & Denney, 2007; Dubey, Pandey, & Mishra, 2010) (b) in infertility cases trait anxiety, state anxiety, negative affect, and low interpersonal resources strongly predict emotional maladjustment associated with alexithymia (Xesús et al., 2015) (c) emotional dysregulation mediates the link between NA and aggression (Donahue, Goranson, McClure, & Van Male, 2014) (d) the broader concept of maladjustment shares associations with negative affect (e.g., Dunkley, Zuroff, & Blankstein, 2006; Haller & Chassin, 2011; De Pauw, Mervielde, Van Leeuwen, & De Clercq, 2011), and (e) as trait anxiety is a central feature of NA (Watson & Clark, 1984) evidence that anxious attachment style predicts adult maladjustment (Sroufe, 1988; Haller & Chassin, 2011) suggests possible associations between NA, maladjustment and attachment style.

Clarifying these associations, negative emotions can be differentiated from NA, general maladjustment, and EM. Negative emotions are a part of daily life and require the capacity for effective self-regulation (Stasiewicz et al., 2012) – meaning that negative moods such as fear, anxiety, hostility, scorn and disgust (Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988) are managed through self-regulation. NA refers to a broad and pervasive personality trait defined as the disposition to experience aversive emotional states (Watson & Clark, 1984) – meaning that negative emotions are not managed, and emotional-regulation fails to occur. This can lead to trait anxiety, introspection, and focussing on the negative side of others and the world (Watson & Clark, 1984). A person with NA persistently experiences negative emotion and negative thought regardless of environmental demand, which is why this condition is not separable from general maladjustment (Watson & Clark, 1984).

NA is proposed as a facet of EM because it presents as an unmanageable state of negative emotion. As NA disposes an individual to pervasive negative emotion that influence their perceptions of self, other-concept, and of the world (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988), their state of affectivity impacts both cognition and behaviour. Watson and Clark (1984) support this quasi synergistic relationship between state of affect and behaviour, claiming that NA is indistinct from general maladjustment because the subjective experience of NA and the ensuing maladjusted behaviour, only represent a different emphasis. Stasiewicz et al., (2012) suggest it is the unpleasantness of the subjective experience of NA that prompts such behaviour. Hence, the mismanagement of negative affect is deemed seminal to maladjusted behaviour.

Examples of research that links NA to maladaptive behaviour are Black, Heyman, and Slep (2001) who found associations between NA and impulsive behaviour in mothers who show aggression and are abusive towards their children. In that study NA was moderately to strongly associated with child physical abuse, among other factors such as aggression. Other studies found that impulsive aggression is driven by NA (Mammen, Kolko, & Pilkonis, 2002). Donahue et al. (2014) showed that NA, mediated by emotional dysregulation, contributes to reactive aggressive behavior in child physical abuse. In every case NA is consistently related to maladaptive behaviour. 

Although related, affect state does not determine behaviour. For example, having found that NA is associated with emotional dysregulation, reactive/impulsive aggression (Donahue et al., 2014), and maladaptive behaviour (Watson & Clark, 1984), an individual’s emotional state does not cause these behaviours. However, an individual’s emotional state may laden perceptions of self and others, and the world (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988) in a manner influencing the intention with which one acts. This is perhaps why, not at ease with themselves (c.f., Stasiewicz et al., 2012), individuals experiencing NA act in a way encumbered by negative emotion. As action does not appear to be separated from emotion, human acts cannot be said to be free of affect.

The current research is an investigation of EM in terms of a vulnerability in the regulation of negative emotions. NA is thought to be one facet of EM due to the individuals’ disposition to pervasive negative perceptions that bias cognition (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988). The Schematic, Propositional, Analogical, and Associative Representation System (SPAARS) model of emotion (Power & Dalgeish, 1997, 2008) posits a distinction between conscious and non-conscious processing of emotion. Accordingly, possible vulnerabilities in emotional regulation could occur at the associative level i.e., affect priming at the perceptual level. Alternately, this could occur at the schematic level, as schema bias the processing of emotion (Beck & Clark, 1988; Tang, Chen, Hu, & Liu, 2017). The observed mismanagement of negative emotions, in Indigenous Australians, may be occurring through an immediate emotional response, more cognitive cues (i.e., schema), or by the interaction of both cognitive and non-cognitive cues.

Researching Emotional Maladjustment

First. Evidence associating NA and maladjusted behaviour is a logical starting point from which to research EM. Unfortunately, NA research does not exist for Australian Indigenous populations. However, the links between physical aggression, emotion dysregulation, and NA (Donahue et al., 2014) and physical violence/abuse and NA (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001), together with the high prevalence of Indigenous family violence and maltreatment of children (involving sexual, physical or emotional abuse and/or neglect) (Stanley, Tomison, & Pocock, 2003), is evidence of the likely association of NA and those maladaptive behaviours, in Indigenous communities.  

Sadly, Indigenous family violence is disproportionately high in comparison with the Australian population, and child abuse and neglect is so severe, that it is thought it will affect another generation (Stanley et al., 2003). And although environmental stressors (e.g., very low income), personality factors, family relationships etc., associated with child emotional abuse (Black, Slep, & Heyman, 2001), may mitigate against and account for some of these behaviours, NA alone shares associations with violence and child physical abuse (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001). It is reasonable to assume that NA may be a factor in the cycle of family violence/trauma.

Second. Alexithymia is a logical paradigm from which to investigate EM. Alexithymia is characterised by the inability to process and to regulate emotions (van der Velde et al., 2015; Kojima, 2012) and predisposes individuals to experiencing increased NA (Bailey & Henry, 2007). Alexithymia leads to deficient emotional awareness associated with abnormal interpersonal relating (FeldmanHall et al., 2013) associated with emotional abuse (Cuneyt, Bilge, Ercan, Basak, & Fatih, 2009) and NA (Bailey & Henry, 2007; Dubey et al., 2010; Lundh & Simonsson-Sarnecki, 2001). Additionally, elevated negative affect is associated with the inability to identify and describe affective and physiological experiences (Stasiewicz et al., 2012; Connelly & Denney, 2007) which is characteristic of alexithymia.

Third. Alexithymia is a symptom of the failure to regulate emotion (Bagby et al., 2009), however, attachment style accounts for individual differences in emotional regulation (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998). Therefore, this research will investigate attachment styles as potentially forming part of the EM construct. Attachment style has been found to amplify negative affect and contribute to the dysregulation of negative affect (Sheinbaum et al., 2015).

Last, as schemas influence perception and emotional processing (Beck & Clark, 1988), it is anticipated that early maladaptive schemas (EMS) form a part of the structure of EM. In sum, NA, alexithymia, attachment style, and EMS are proposed variables that underlie the structure of EM by contributing to the accentuation of negative perceptions and/or the dysregulation of negative emotion. Infant attachment is the chronologically logical starting point to discuss the remaining variables.      

Insecure Attachment, Emotional Maladjustment, and Personality Deficits

Attachments are bonds formed between an infant and caregiver that effect how an infant develops feelings, thoughts and expectations towards people. Within that bond the child’s management of emotion defines the attachment style as either secure, anxious-ambivalent, or avoidant (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Attachment styles, as internalised models of bonding, influence individual responses to separation from, and reunion to, their attachment figures (Montebarocci, Codispoti, Baldaro, & Rossi, 2004). Those working models persist into adulthood (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Wearden, Lamberton, Crook, & Walsh, 2005) representing adaptive/maladaptive orientations to relationships (Downey & Fieldman, 1996).

Working models involve the encoding of interpersonal situations, the formation of behavioural expectancies, the placing of value on the response of significant others, and the regulation of emotional responses (i.e., emotional regulation strategies) to those significant others (Feldman & Downey, 1994). Individuals with secure attachment use emotional regulation strategies that activate positive emotions (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014), biasing perception, thought and emotional responses. Secure attachment is negatively associated with alexithymia (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014; Abadi, Abdolmohamadi, Kheiradin, & Roodsari, 2015).

Insecure attachment styles tend to use emotional regulation strategies that emphasize the negative emotions and repressed emotional experiences (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014), leading to difficulties in coping with negative experiences (Cooper et al., 1998; Montebarocci et al., 2004). When a child is unable to cope with the experience of negative emotion, that child can repress those experiences by using avoidant strategies (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014). In this same situation, an anxious-ambivalent child does not repress the negative affect, rather they experience it as distress (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014). Either coping style represents emotional dysfunction.

Early childhood is a time of increased vulnerability to psychopathology associated with emotional dysregulation (Ahmed, Bittencourt-Hewitt, & Sebastian, 2015) and individuals with insecure attachment, who tend to use regulation strategies that emphasise negative emotions (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014). These styles—(i) avoidant (Abadi et al., 2015; De Rick & Vanheule, 2006; Besharat & Shahidi, 2014) and (ii) anxious-ambivalent (Abadi et al., 2015; Besharat & Shahidi, 2014)—are positively associated with alexithymia. It is presumed that deficits in the ability to process negative affect, associated with psychopathology, occur during this critical stage of development.   

As alexithymia is argued to be a symptom of the failure to regulate emotion (Bagby et al., 2009) its evidential link to insecure attachment and the accentuation of negative affect (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014) is to be expected. People with alexithymia experience interpersonal deficits in forming social attachments (Ridings & Lutz-Zois, 2014) due to emotional problems (Meaney, Hasking, & Reupert, 2016) formed in early childhood. Cognitive emotional regulation strategies mediate the relationship between insecure attachment and alexithymia, because those individuals emphasise negative emotions, avoid emotional experiences, and experience more stress (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014).

These deficits in emotional processing may be explained in terms of difficulty in identifying feelings (DIF) (a sub-measure of alexithymia), anxiety (Marchesi, Brusamonti, & Maggini, 2000), and NA (Bailey & Henry, 2007; Dubey et al., 2010; Watson & Clark, 1984). DIF may be a response to caregiver NA and caregiver-infant related anxiety which would explain the inability to form social attachments (characteristic of alexithymia), and possibly how the accentuation of negative perception may lead to EM – particularly as (in individuals with high levels of alexithymia) the lack of awareness, and regulation of, emotion manifests as elevated subjective negative affect (Connelly & Denney, 2007).

Kreitler (2002) thinks that the lack of awareness (and regulation of) of emotion is due to a split in cognition and affect, due to deficient emotional learning in childhood. Ayoub, Fischer, and O'Connor (2003) found that the splitting/dissociation of the self in abusive attachment relationships, enabled adolescence to cope with those relationships. This evidence further helps define alexithymia in terms of developmental deficits caused by inadequate caring, insecure attachment, and a deficient cognitive development of symbolisation and fantasy (Kreitler, 2002). Similarly, Kooiman, Spinhoven, Trijsburg, and Rooijmans (1998) associated alexithymia with defence mechanisms formed in early childhood.

Broadly, alexithymia refers to a general impairment in the awareness of emotions due to a failure in connecting the implicit and explicit processing of affect (Subic-Wrana, Bruder, Thomas, Lane, & Köhle, 2005). Its defining features are (a) difficulty in identify and describing feelings (b) difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the sensations of emotional arousal (c) impoverished fantasy life and (d) focusing on concrete aspects of external events (Kreitler, 2002).

The Fourth Factor of Affect Regulation

The current research is an investigation of an observed vulnerability in the regulation of negative emotion, attributed to the hypothesised latent variable, EM. This vulnerability is being studied (i) from the perspective of attachment styles that account for individual differences in emotional regulation, the shaping expectancies surrounding negative emotion, and the development of coping strategies, and (ii) in association with alexithymia that is linked to impaired emotional regulation, and the manifestation of negative affect. 

EM is thought to hinge upon the dysregulation of NA through the accentuation of negative perception. A vulnerability in affect state possibly is occurring through the repression and ‘bottling-up’ of, negative emotion (i.e., avoidant strategies) or the experience of distress (i.e., anxious-ambivalent strategies) (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014). Because alexithymia impedes the regulation of negative affect (Connelly & Denney, 2007) by suppression rather than reappraisal (Swart, Kortekaas, & Aleman, 2009), perhaps avoidant strategies are more likely to evoke EM.  

However, in considering factors that induce vulnerability in affect regulation – unmanageable emotional states associated with NA, insecure attachment, and alexithymia – schemas must also be considered. As schemas influence affect regulation (Beck & Clark, 1988) schemas likely contribute to EM, if not trigger/moderate it.

Early Maladaptive Schemas

Beck and Clark (1988) defined schemas as organised knowledge structures that influence cognitive processes such as attention, perception, learning and retrieval of information, and form processing biases. Young (1994) found that maladaptive schemas form in early childhood because of unmet needs (Bosmans, Braet, & Van Vlierberghe, 2010). EMS relate to memories, emotions, cognitions, and feelings about the body and communicating with others (Abadi et al., 2015), comprising of five domains of need and 15 schemas (Thimm, 2010). For example, (i) children who experiences emotional detachment, rejection or abuse may develop core beliefs of being unwanted, inferior or unlovable in the domain of disconnection and rejection, (ii) the domain of impaired autonomy stems from an early environment that fails to reinforce a child appropriately, or that undermines a child’s perceived competence, and (iii) schema in the domain of overvigilance and inhibition are cultivated in early environments that are demanding and rigid, and where abiding by rules is rewarded in a way that inhibits personal exploration (Dozois, Martin, & Bieling, 2009). Table 1 presents Young’s (1994) EMS cited in Thimm (2013) and Chakhssi, Bernstein, and Ruiter (2014).

Table 1

Description of the EMS proposed by Young (1994)

Scale

Description

Disconnection and rejection domain

 

Emotional deprivation

The expectation that one’s need for nurturance, empathy, and protection will not be met by others.

Abandonment/instability

 

The belief that significant others providing support are unstable, unreliable or unpredictable.

Mistrust/abuse

The expectation that others will intentionally hurt, abuse, cheat, or take advantage.

Social isolation

The feeling that one is fundamentally different from other people, isolated, and not part of a community.

Defectiveness/shame

The belief that one is inherently flawed, defective, and unlovable.

Impaired autonomy and performance domain

 

Failure to achieve

 

Belief of being fundamentally inadequate and will inevitably fail.

Dependence

The belief that one is dependent of others to handle everyday life.

Vulnerability

The fear that an imminent and unpreventable catastrophe will strike at any time.

Enmeshment

Extensive emotional involvement and closeness with significant others at the expense of full individuation.

Impaired limits domain

 

Entitlement

The belief that one is superior and entitled to special rights and privileges.

Insufficient self-control

A lack of self-control and tolerance of frustration to achieve one’s goals.

Other-directedness domain

 

Subjugation

 

The belief that one has to surrender control to others and to suppress one’s own needs and emotions.

Self-sacrifice

An excessive focus on meeting the needs of others at the expense of one’s own needs and well-being.

Over-vigilance and inhibition domain

 

Emotional inhibition

 

The belief that one must inhibit spontaneous feelings and actions.

Unrelenting standards

The belief that one must strive to meet high internalized standards.

 

EMS have been likened to internal working models of attachment (Gay, Harding, Jackson, Burns, & Baker, 2013). They develop during adverse interactions with attachment figures (Bosmans et al., 2010), evolve to partially define the construct of self and significant others, resist modification, and become trait-like (Thimm, 2013). As pervasive and deep-rooted patterns of cognition and affect, they influence cognitive processing by shaping context specific mental processes (Young, Klosko, & Weishaar, 2003) and are a form of contextual priming. This biasing of affect states occurs through proximal cognitive processes (Calvete & Orue, 2012) represents a vulnerability in affect regulation at the schematic level.

As schemas influence affect regulation (Beck & Clark, 1988), EMS that develop during adverse interactions with attachment figures (Bosmans et al., 2010) are likely contributors to emotional dysregulation within those caregiver-child attachment bonds, or vice-versa. Hence, EMS likely share developmental pathways associated with insecure attachment.

Shared Developmental Pathways

EMS develop when core psychological needs of secure attachment, autonomy, freedom to express valid needs and emotions, and having realistic limits, are not met (Thimm, 2010). Meeting those core psychological needs is being impeded by stress, chaos, social exclusion and inequality that damage the development of social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous children (Zubrick et al., 2014). This “growing chaos” (Zubrick et al., 2014, p. 98) disrupts attachment, adversely affects the emotional regulation and the autonomy of developing children (Zubrick et al., 2014) and is negatively associated with the emotional growth and the behavioral adaptation of children (Ackerman, Kogos, Youngstrom, Schoff, & Izard, 1999).

The current chaotic family environments suggest that EMS develop (in childhood), among Indigenous Australians. These maladaptive environments are associated with stress (Zubrick et al., 2014). Stress shares multiple pathways with NA (Moyle, 1995), making the family a place in which children become accustomed to the experience of negative emotions that influence cognition (i.e., NA) (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988). It is assumed that the family environment is where children develop vulnerabilities in affect regulation, associated with NA and maladaptive schemas. Further, EMS that are associated with psychopathology (Thimm, 2013) and emotional dysregulation (Ahmed et al., 2015), may also share associations with alexithymia that is considered a defect in affect regulation due to deficient emotional learning in childhood (Kreitler, 2002). Therefore, the chaotic family environment is potentially the developmental locus of all facets of EM (insecure attachment, NA, alexithymia and EMS).

The current literature indicates that EMS, which influence affect regulation (Beck & Clark, 1988) and bias affect states (Calvete & Orue, 2012), share associations with attachment style and alexithymia. First, Simard, Moss, and Pascuzzo (2011) found that elements of adult working models (e.g., anxiety, negative self-view, distress experienced through insecure attachment, and negative affect), are associated with EMS. Insecure adult attachments are related to rejection schemas, developed in childhood (Bosmans et al., 2010). Those with anxious-ambivalent attachment are susceptible to multiple EMS (Simard, et al., 2011) such as disconnection/rejection and other-directedness (Bosmans et al., 2010; Gay et al., 2013). Attachment avoidance is associated with schemas of disconnection/rejection and impaired autonomy (Bosmans et al., 2010), and disconnection/rejection and overvigilance and inhibition (Gay et al., 2013). Second, avoidant attachment, linked to both impaired autonomy and over-vigilance, predicts alexithymia (Abadi et al., 2015).

In review, EMS are thought to be facets of the EM construct, potentially representing a vulnerability in affect regulation at the schematic level. EMS are presumed to co-occur/develop with insecure attachment styles, alexithymia, and NA. Robust associations have been found between the EMS domain of disconnection/rejection and insecure attachment (i.e., both anxious-ambivalent and avoidant attachment). Forming part of that domain (disconnection/rejection) is the schema of abandonment/instability, resonant with the described growing chaos and instability (Zubrick et al., 2014) within Indigenous communities. Other proven association are between avoidant attachment, overvigilance and inhibition, impaired autonomy, and alexithymia.

The Construct of EM

EM refers to an individual’s internal state that represents a vulnerability in affect regulation, and is thought to contribute to maladjusted behaviour. It is a latent variable, meaning it is not directly observable, for example, like the emotion of anger. EM is inferred on the evidence of the observation of individuals animated with negative emotion and who failed to manage, or communicate those feelings in a constructive, rational manner i.e., who also show signs of abnormal interpersonal relating (FeldmanHall et al., 2013). EM is thought to be a vulnerability in affect regulation due to the overemphasis of state-specific negative perception—that may be moderated by EMS—and may facilitate emotionally expressive, yet unmindful behaviour. More than mere NA, EM is a hypothesised construct with four facets: NA, EMS, a difficulty in identifying feelings, and insecure attachment style.

Aims and Hypotheses

To reduce knowledge gaps in SEWB and contribute to learning strategies that promote resilience (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014), this study aims to more fully understand the influence of negative emotions in the lives of Indigenous Australians. Those emotions have seldom been considered independent of the trauma suffered by Indigenous people (Garvey, 2008; AIATSIS, 2016). To meet that gap in knowledge this study investigates EM which is a negative construal of emotional wellbeing. That construct manifests through the association of NA, insecure attachment, EMS, and alexithymia. The following interrelated hypotheses were formulated to indicate EM.  

1.         Levels of NA will be high in Indigenous Australian populations, compared with Australian population norms – indicative of EM. This is because of the link between violence and abuse with NA (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001; Mammen et al., 2002; Donahue et al., 2014) and evidence of those behaviours in Indigenous Australian communities (Stanley et al., 2003), it is hypothesised that levels of NA will be high in Indigenous Australian populations, compared with Australian population.

2.         Indigenous persons with insecure attachment styles will tend to be high in NA compared to Indigenous Australian persons with secure attachment styles – indicative of EM. As NA is characterised by the inability to manage negative moods (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988) and as insecurely attached persons use regulation strategies that emphasise negative emotions (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014) it is hypothesised that persons with insecure attachment styles will tend to be high in NA compared to Indigenous Australian persons with secure attachment styles – indicative of EM. 

3.         Indigenous Australian persons with insecure attachment styles will tend to have developed EMS in one or more of the domains of disconnection, impaired autonomy, or overvigilance and inhibition (Simard et al., 2011; Bosmans et al., 2010; Gay et al., 2013) – indicative of EM.

4.         Indigenous Australian persons high in NA will tend to have difficulties in identifying feelings (DIF) – indicative of EM. This is because alexithymia is associated with dysregulation of negative affect (Connelly & Denney, 2007); DIF overlaps anxiety (Marchesi et al., 2000) which is a central feature of NA (Watson & Clark, 1984); DIF is associated with childhood abuse, affect dysregulation (Evren, Evren, Dalbudak, Ozcelik, & Oncu, 2009) and NA (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001); and NA is significantly related to DIF (Dubey & Pandey, 2013).

5.         Intercorrelations between the measures of NA, DIF, insecure attachment style, and EMS will identify a four-factor latent variable EM.

Method

Participants

In February 2017, 67 Aboriginal (Nyoongar) adults from the wheatbelt town of Moora, Western Australia, located 185 kilometres north of Perth, took part in written surveys about their psychological wellbeing. The criterion was being over 18 years of age and the sample consisted of 39 females, 23 males and 5 individuals of undisclosed gender, drawn from an Indigenous population of approximately 286 (58% female, 42% male) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011). The mean age was 42.81 (SD = 15.09). Consent was given and participants received $20 compensation. The total population of Moora is approximately 1822 (51.3% female, 48.7% male).

Design

An independent groups design enabled associations to be assessed between the following variables (each measured on a 5-point scale): NA, DIF, attachment style and EMS, and the testing of mean differences across the sample for each hypothesis (i.e., NA means in (a) Indigenous Australian versus general Australian populations (b) secure versus insecure attachment styles (c) individuals with DIF versus ‘non-DIF,’ and EMS present in those with insecure versus secure attachment styles).

Data analysis involved descriptive statistics and independent samples t-tests. An exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was performed to account for the shared variance between the variables, indicating constituent factors of the underlying latent variable, EM.

Materials

I-PANAS-SF (Thompson, 2007). The positive and negative affect schedule-short form is a 10-item measure of affectivity (positive and negative). It is designed to measure positive affectivity (PA) and NA in cross-cultural research settings, making redundant words closely related to each other (in meaning) in Watson, Clark, and Tellegan’s (1988) original 20-item PANAS (Thompson, 2007). It is noted that alexithymia is seldom so severe that individuals are unable to self-report emotional distress (Lundh, & Simonsson‐Sarnecki, 2001) required by the PANAS scale.

The items are (a) PA: active, determined, attentive, inspired, and alert (b) NA: afraid, nervous, upset, hostile, and ashamed. Participants were asked to describetheir feelings and emotions according to the adjective used, indicating to what extent they felt that way generally using an interval measure: never 1 2 3 4 5 always. Higher scores indicate greater affectivity. Test-retest coefficient of reliability for both the PA and NA subscales were both .84 (p < .01) and Cronbach’s alpha was .78 for PA and .76 for NA, indicating adequate reliability (Thompson, 2007).

I-PANAS-SF scores correlate strongly with the PANAS (Thompson, 2007). Scoring could be achieved by halving those found by Watson, Clark, and Tellegan (1988), i.e. the PA mean would become 16.65 and the NA mean would become 8.7. This study adopted Thompson’s (2007) mean scores for the Australian population (N =1,789): PA = 19.16 (SD = 3.39), NA = 10.76 (SD = 3.36).

            TAS-20 (Bagby, Parker, & Taylor, 1994). The 20 item Toronto Alexithymia Scale is a self-report measure of alexithymia. It has three subscales: DIF (α = .81) has seven items (e.g., “When I am upset, I don’t know if I am sad, frightened, or angry”); difficulty describing feelings (α = .75) has five items (e.g., “It is difficult for me to find the right words for my feelings”); externally oriented thinking (α = .66) has eight items (e.g., “I prefer talking to people about their daily activities rather than their feelings”). Participants are asked to agree/disagree with each item on a 5-point scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = moderately disagree, 3 = neither disagree nor agree, 4 = moderately agree, and 5 = strongly agree). Higher scores indicate greater alexithymia. Overall, the TAS-20 demonstrated acceptable internal consistency (α = .81) and the test-retest (three weeks apart) reliability was .77 (p < 0.01). The current study used a single subscale, DIF. DIF has the highest internal consistency of the three subscales, and accounts for the greatest variance in the factor solution found by Bagby et al. (1994).  

The scoring of the TAS-20 is as follows: equal to or less than 51 = non-alexithymia; 52-60 = possible alexithymia; and equal to or greater than 61 = alexithymia (Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, 2017). The following (proportionate) scheme was adopted in the present study to indicate DIF: equal to or greater than 19 = no DIF; 20-21 = possible DIF; and equal to or greater than 22 = DIF (Association for Contextual Behavioral Science, 2017).

Attachment Style (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998). Secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent attachment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) styles were measured by a version of Hazan and Shaver’s (1987) adult attachment self-report questionnaire found in Cooper et al., (1998). The construct validity has been established through multiple studies (30 between 1987 and 1998) where attachment style was rated on a 7-point scale (Cooper et al., 1998).

In the present study, each participant replied to: “Have you ever been involved in a serious romantic relationship? If not, please imagine what your experience would be like in such a relationship. For each description below indicate whether this describes (or would describe) you in your romantic relationships on a scale of 1-5” (yes, this definitely describes me 1 2 3 4 5 no, this does not describe me).

The adult attachment styles were described as follows (Cooper et al., 1998):

  • Avoidant: “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
  • Secure: “I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.”
  • Anxious-ambivalent: “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.”

Early Maladaptive Schemas (Young, 1994). Young (1994) identified 15 EMS (see Table 1). EMS are maladaptive patterns of cognition and affect that influence current behaviour. Young’s (1994) schema definitions were reconfigured to form items in domains of disconnection and rejection, impaired autonomy and performance, and overvigilance and inhibition. For example, in the domain of disconnection and rejection one item was: “Do you believe that your emotional needs will be taken care of by other people?” Items were rated on a 5-point scale. As the Schema Questionnaire-Short form (Young, 1998) has 75 items (see Hoffart et al. (2005) who report its adequate internal consistency and factorial structure), reducing items to indicate the schemas per se was considered suitable for the initial exploration of schema whilst not fatiguing participants.

Procedure

The research included a consultation process with local members of the Nyoongar community. A letter of support was issued and the investigator was encouraged to visit people in their houses to personally invite them to participate in the research. The advantage of soliciting participants in person is that the investigator could clarify any questions about the research and manage any possible risks of participation by providing understanding and support, and calling on additional support if needed.

When individuals showed interest in participating they there given an explanatory statement (which was to be kept), two C4-envelopes, a consent form, and a questionnaire. After a suitable reading time participants were invited to asks questions. Next, they were instructed (a) that they may complete the consent form and a questionnaire at a time and place suitable to them (b) to place completed documents into separate C4-envelopes (marked “A” for consent forms and “B” for the questionnaires) and (c) that they may submit both C4-envelopes together to the Moora Post Office where participants would receive the incentive promised to them and (d) completed forms would be sealed, and be kept separately, to ensure confidentiality.  

Results

The data was entered into SPSS statistical software (IBM, 64-bit edition, build 1.0.0.355, 2017). Participants 31, 61 and 62 were removed due to the selection of only maximum scores in the column(s) of one (or more) of the questions in the EM materials. No univariate outliers were identified in the revised data. A calculation of Mahalanobis distances revealed no multivariate outliers either. Missing values were assigned the value of -1.

Hypotheses

Levels of NA will be high in Indigenous Australian populations, compared with Australian population norms. A total of 55 participants completed the five NA items in the questionnaire. Scores ranged between 5-24, with a mean of 11.95 and a standard deviation of 4.37. Table 2 shows the statistics for individual items.

SPSS calculates significance without reference to overall group standard deviation and participant numbers. Therefore, a more sophisticated online unpaired t test was used (https://www.graphpad.com/quickcalcs/ttest1/) to test hypothesis 1. The following statistics were entered from the Moora sample: N = 55, M = 11.95, SD = 4.37 and from an Australian sample: N = 1789, M = 10.76, SD = 3.36. As expected, NA was found to be higher in the Moora sample than in the Australian population. The mean difference of 1.19 is significant, t(1842) = 2.56, p = .0105. The 95% confidence interval in mean difference was between .28 to 2.10.

As a comparison the SPSS one-sample t test results were also significant, t(54) = 2.01, p = .049, the mean difference was 1.19 and the 95% confidence interval in mean difference was between .00 and 2.37. Both statistical methods find that levels of NA tend to be significantly higher in the Indigenous Australian population in Moora, compared with Australian population norms.

Table 2

Mean Scores for NA Items (I-PANAS-SF)

 

Number

Minimum

Maximum

Mean

Std. Deviation

Upset

61

1.00

5.00

2.54

1.16

Hostile

59

1.00

5.00

2.15

1.11

Ashamed

59

1.00

5.00

2.05

1.21

Nervous

60

1.00

5.00

2.90

1.19

Afraid

59

1.00

5.00

2.44

1.41

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indigenous persons with insecure attachment styles will tend to be high in NA compared to Indigenous Australian persons with secure attachment styles. An independent samples t test was performed. Contrary to expectations individuals with secure attachment tend to have higher NA scores (N = 7, M = 13.14, SD = 5.6) than those with insecure attachment styles (N = 29, M = 11.66, SD = 3.53). The result is not significant (t(34) = .89, p = .38) and is unreliable (because of the small numbers within each group, and the large deviation in the insecure attachment group).

Indigenous Australian persons with insecure attachment styles will tend to have developed EMS in one or more of the domains of disconnection, impaired autonomy, or overvigilance and inhibition. An independent samples t test was performed. Table 3 shows the differences in means in secure and insecure attachment groups.

Table 3

Mean Scores for EMS Domains Across Secure/Insecure Attachment

 

Attachment Style

Number

Mean

Std. Deviation

Disconnection/Rejection

Secure

8

2.03

.72

 

Insecure

33

2.38

1.33

Autonomy/Performance

Secure

8

2.06

1.08

 

Insecure

33

2.04

1.28

Overvigilance/Inhibition

Secure

8

3.31

1.49

 

Insecure

33

2.94

1.28


Contrary to expectations, no significant differences were found between secure/insecure attachment styles in the domains of disconnection/rejection (t(39) = .73, p = .470)., autonomy/performance (t(39) = .50, p = .960), or overvigilance/inhibition (t(39) = .72, p = .477). The findings are limited by the small group sizes (i.e., attachment style groupings).

Indigenous Australian persons high in NA will tend to have difficulties in identifying feelings. An independent samples t test was performed. Table 4 shows the differences in means in DIF/no DIF groups.

Table 4

Means NA Sores in DIF/No DIF Groups

 

 

Number

Mean

Std. Deviation

NA Total

No DIF

27

10.56

3.96

 

DIF

25

13.76

4.26

 

As expected, mean differences in NA were found between DIF/no DIF groups and they were significant, (t(50) = 2.8, p = .007). Indigenous people high in NA tend to have difficulties in identifying their feelings. Another striking result is that nearly half the sample reported difficulties in identifying their emotions.

Intercorrelations between the measures of NA, DIF, insecure attachment style, and EMS will identify a four-factor latent variable EM. Factor analysis is the method of choice for interpreting self-reporting questionnaires (Williams, Onsman, & Brown, 2010). An EFA was performed to summarise the structure of the variables and identify the underlying latent variable (Hills, 2011), EM. A three-factor solution was produced, partially supporting the hypothesis. The model accounted for 52.98% of the variance. Communalities for all items were above .38. The scree plot lacked a definitive cut-point, maybe due to the small sample size and the low ratio of variables (9) to factors (3). However, the analysis fulfilled the requirement of having at least five participants per variable, but not the ideal of having a minimum of 100 (Hills, 2011). Some claim that a sample size of between 50 and 100 is adequate to perform a factor analysis (Sapnas, & Zeller, 2002).

The preferred fitting method for EFA is maximum likelihood (if the assumption of multivariate normality is not violated) as it allows for the computation of a range of indexes that calculate the goodness of fit of the statistical model with the actual sample (Fabrigar, Wegener, MacCallum & Strahan, 1999). As the factors were assumed to be related, an oblique rotation (Promax) that allows correlations between the factors (Francis, 2013), was used to interpret the data and achieve a simple structure.

The final analysis produced a Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of .692 indicating that a mediocre proportion of variance, among variables, is common variance suitable for factor analysis. The Bartlett’s Test was significant (χ2(36) = 149.34, p <.001), indicating significant correlations in the data set (Francis, 2013). The pattern matrix, with simple structure, is shown in Table 5, item correlations are shown in Table 6, correlations between factors are shown in Table 7, and descriptive statistics for the 10-item EM scale in Table 8. Only 25.00% of residuals between observed and reproduced correlations were above .05, indicating a good model fit for the solution. Additionally, the goodness of fit test was not significant, χ2(12) = 14.11, p = .293, demonstrating that there was no significant difference between what the model predicts and what was found in the sample (Francis, 2013).  

Table 5

Pattern Matrix and Communalities for a three Factor EM Solution with Oblique Rotation (Promax)

Item

Factor1

Factor2

Factor3

Communality

EMS 5: Do you believe that there is something wrong with you and that you are unlovable?

.92

 

 

.83

EMS 3: Do you expect to be treated badly by others, such as being abused, mistreated, or cheated on?

.73

 

 

.50

EMS 6: Do you believe that you are inadequate and that you will inevitably fail?

.72

 

 

.63

NA upset: Indicate the way you generally feel upset.

 

.70

 

.59

NA ashamed: Indicate the way you generally feel ashamed.

 

.67

 

.41

NA hostile: Indicate the way you generally feel hostile.

 

.64

 

.38

DIF 4: I am often puzzled by sensations in my body.

 

 

.73

.53

DIF 2: I have physical sensations that even doctors don’t understand.

 

 

.69

.48

DIF 6: I don’t know what’s going on inside me.

 

 

.57

.41

NB. All coefficients are sorted by size and small coefficients are suppressed.

Table 6

Bivariate Correlations for the EM Scale

 

EMS 5

EMS 3

EMS 6

NA Upset

NA Ashamed

NA Hostile

DIF 4

DIF 2

DIF 6

EMS 5

1.00

.63**

.69**

.34**

.13

.16

.27*

.31*

.16

EMS 3

.63**

1.00

.53**

.20

.05

.03

.18

.24

.18

EMS 6

.69**

.53**

1.00

.39**

.35**

.20

.25

.14

.20

NA Upset

.34**

.20

.39**

1.00

.43**

.52**

.23

.13

.35**

NA Ashamed

.13

.05

.35**

.43**

1.00

.40**

.16

-.00

.23

NA Hostile

.16

.03

.20

.52**

.40**

1.00

.02

.21

.15

DIF 4

.27*

.18

.25

.23

.16

.02

1.00

.50**

.45**

DIF 2

.31*

.24

.14

.13

-.00

.21

.50**

1.00

.37**

DIF 6

.16

.18

.20

.35**

.23

.15

.45**

.37**

1.00

NB. * p < .05, **p < .01

Table 7

Correlations Between Factors

Factor

1

2

3

1

1.00

 

 

2

.371

1.00

 

3

.387

.327

1.00

 

Table 8

Descriptive Statistics for the EM Scale (N = 64)

 

No. of items

M (SD)

Eigenvalue

Cronbach’s α

Factor 1

3

2.04 (.01)

3.23

.83

Factor 2

3

2.23 (.57)

1.52

.71

Factor 3

3

2.79 (.08)

1.39

.70

 

Table 8 summarises the results of the EFA. Indigenous Australians scoring high on EMS 5, 3 and 6, score high in factor 1 – the belief of being unlovable and inadequate whilst expecting the worst in other people. Factor 2 is a measure of negative affect. A high score indicates generally feeling upset, hostile and ashamed. Factor 3 represents an inability to interpret the meaning of internal sensations. A high score indicates deficits in somatic perception.

Table 9 gives an alternate solution with an orthogonal rotation (Varimax). Orthogonal solutions do not account for correlations between items, and may exaggerate the unique contribution of non-genuine factors that are correlated with actual factors. In the alternate solution, the scree plot gave little indication of the factor solution, the model accounted for only 49.33% of the variance, and correlations were found between the factors – so it was discarded. Other statistics: The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure was .653, Bartlett’s Test significant (χ2(45) = 167.21, p <.001), and 31.00% of residuals between observed and reproduced correlations were above .05.   

Table 9

Rotated Factor Matrix and Communalities for a three Factor EM Solution with Orthogonal Rotation

Item

Factor1

Factor2

Factor3

Communality

EMS 3: Do you expect to be treated badly by others, such as being abused, mistreated, or cheated on?

.92

 

 

.86

EMS 5: Do you believe that there is something wrong with you and that you are unlovable?

.63

 

 

.49

Avoidant: “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”

.61

 

 

.42

Anxious-ambivalent: “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.”

.59

 

 

.36

NA upset. Indicate the way you generally feel upset.

 

.79

 

.68

NA hostile. Indicate the way you generally feel hostile.

 

.65

 

.43

NA ashamed. Indicate the way you generally feel ashamed.

 

.64

 

.30

DIF 4: I am often puzzled by sensations in my body.

 

 

.76

.60

DIF 2: I have physical sensations that even doctors don’t understand.

 

 

.60

.41

DIF 6: I don’t know what’s going on inside me.

 

 

.55

.39

NB. All coefficients are sorted by size and small coefficients are suppressed

Table 10

Bivariate Correlations for the Orthogonal Rotation

 

NA Upset

NA Hostile

NA Ashamed

EMS 3

EMS 5

Avoid

Anxious

DIF 6

DIF 4

DIF 2

NA Upset

1.00

.52**

.43**

.20

.34**

.10

.09

.35**

.23

.13

NA Hostile

.52**

1.00

.40**

.03

.16

.13

-.14

.15

.02

.21

NA Ashamed

.43**

.40**

1.00

.05

.13

.08

.12

.23

.16

-.00

EMS 3

.20

.03

.05

1.00

.63**

.57**

.52**

.18

.18

.24

EMS 5

.34**

.16

.13

.63**

1.00

.30*

.33*

.16

.27*

.31*

Avoidant

.10

.13

.08

.57**

.30*

1.00

.60**

.30*

.21

.27*

Anxious

.09

-.14

.12

.52**

.33*

.60**

1.00

.30*

.10

.08

DIF 6

.35**

.15

.23

.18

.15

.30*

.30*

1.00

.45**

.37**

DIF 4

.23

.02

.16

.18

.27*

.21

.10

.45**

1.00

.50**

DIF 2

.13

.21

-.00

.24

.31*

.27*

.08

.37**

.50**

1.00

NB. * p < .05, **p < .01

Discussion

The main findings are that NA is significantly high among the Indigenous participants, that 48% of those who completed the DIF subscale were found to have DIF, and that NA is positively associated with DIF. As the measure of negative affect increases, that increase is associated with a greater difficulty in those individuals being able to identify what emotions they are feeling. Also associated with the elevation of affect, and the inability to interpret it, are EMS. These findings were expected.

Findings that insecure attachment styles were neither associated with higher NA nor EMS, were unexpected. Hence the description of EM is narrowed to (i) beliefs of being unlovable and inadequate, whilst expecting the worst in other people; beliefs associated with (ii) maladjusted affect regulation and feelings of being upset and ashamed, and of hostility; being feelings that (iii) evade the perception of the individual because of their difficulty in identifying their bodily sensations and feelings.

Interpreting the Findings

As expected it was found that levels of NA, in the Moora Indigenous community, are significantly higher than in the Australian population. Individuals with NA tend to experience unmanageable negative emotions (Watson & Clarke, 1984). Those pervasive feelings influence perceptions of self and other-concept, and of the world (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988). This finding is fundamental to the construct of EM, however (and as the construct of EM affirms) additional factors other than negative perceptions, contribute to an individual’s emotional state.

The lowest scoring item was ashamed which is not identical with affect, in Aboriginal culture, so this item may have been underscored. Feeling upset had the highest I-PANAS-SF mean score for an individual item. Taken on face-value, being emotionally down/unhappy/distressed (i.e., NA: upset) contributes the most to being habitually open to negativity and negative perception. This state of distress shared significant associations with feelings of hostility and of being ashamed, not knowing what was occurring interiorly (DIF 6) (i.e., not knowing the reason why they were upset), and believing themselves to be a failure because something was wrong with them (EMS 6).

The experience of those negative emotions, combined with the inability to recognize feelings as internal sensations, describes an inability to differentiate thinking from feeling and hence, cognition from perception. The associated EMS presents an additional complexity to this finding. Overall, it may be that cognition, enmeshed in the perception of negative affect, represents a vulnerability in affect regulation. If an individual’s mind was so clouded with affect, it would be impossible for meaning to be derived from that subject’s experience of the world, and regulation of affect (that implies a rational and controlled process) would be impossible. Unable to differentiate cognition from affect, an individual’s experience of self, the world and of the other, would be immersed in negativity. And although it seems clear that a lack of cognitive appraisal contributes to the findings, what is not known is at what level of association this deficit is occurring i.e., at the nonconscious associative level of affect, at the schematic level, or alternately, if EMS are mood-state contingent.   

In this discussion, personal freedom must also be considered. A person is not free if that individual’s negative emotions mitigate their ability to make good choices. Having found NA, DIF and EMS present in the population, a question to be asked is: Are the actions of those individuals rational and free of affect? It seems they are not. Having a limited ability to appraise affect states and having cognitive biases, an individual must form their intention to act either upon affective impulse (or perhaps gut feeling) or reasons independent of affect states. This poses two questions: Could the process of deliberation, in the struggle to make meaningful choices, split cognition and affect as a precursor to alexithymia? Although dissociative splitting is adaptive by facilitating control in a threatening environment (Ayoub et al., 2003), it may rupture inner cognitive processes in relation to an individual’s experience of the world (Dubey et al., 2010; Bailey & Henry, 2007). Second: Does this vulnerability in the ability to make rational, affect-free choices, occur at the associative level, or at the schematic level (Power & Dalgeish, 1997, 2008), or possibly through the interaction of both?

The second point concerning NA is that this preliminary research did not assesses the relationship between NA and stress. As NA is significantly high in the population, the relationship between these variables may be explored in future research. Moyle (1995) found that in stressful situations an individual’s level of NA regulates their response to those situations. In the study population, these variables may be interacting as Indigenous families have been found to be stressful environments in (Zubrick et al., 2014). But as deficits in the ability to regulate negative emotions in individuals with alexithymia, are associated with the subjective misinterpretation of environmental stressors (Connelly & Denney, 2007), DIF may also be considered in this stress-diathesis model.  

Unexpectedly, the proposed model of EM does not include insecure attachment styles. NA, DIF, EMS, and insecure attachment were theorised to be core elements of EM. However, no significant relationships were found between insecure attachment and NA, nor between insecure attachment and EMS. These findings that relate to hypotheses two and three, are discussed next.

First, although insecurely attached persons have been found to use regulation strategies that emphasise negative emotions (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014), levels of NA were higher in those individuals with secure attachment styles. This unexpected result may be explained by a closer look at the secure group (N = 7, M = 13.14, SD = 5.6). Participants 44 and 63 score 19 and 20 respectively – excluding these outliers, the mean NA score is 10.60 which is in conformity with the hypothesis. However, the biggest problem in interpreting these findings is that only 41 (8 with secure attachment, 33 with insecure attachment) of 64 participants were assigned an attachment grouping, possibly indicating that the grouping has little meaning to the participants, or there were defects in the materials used to assign attachment styles. Hence, the results are both insignificant and unreliable.

Second, the findings did not indicate that there is a significant relationship between EMS and insecure attachment. Testing this hypothesis was also impacted by low group sizes. However, the findings may be redundant. Table 10 indicates that insecure attachment shares significant associations with the expectation of being mistreated (EMS 3) whilst not being a factor of EM. Arguably, insecure attachment mediates the relationship between EMS and EM.

As insecure attachment styles lead to difficulties in coping with negative experiences (Cooper et al., 1998; Montebarocci et al., 2004), it was expected that either repressing (avoidant strategy) NA, and/or experiencing it as distress (anxious-ambivalent strategy) may explain the populations’ inability to manage negative emotions. Besharat and Shahidi (2014) found that insecurely attached persons use regulation strategies that emphasise negative emotions, not trait NA. Also unexpectedly, no significant associations were found between EMS and insecure attachment. Attachment style may represent only a general vulnerability factor for EMS which is in-line with Simard et al. (2011) who found that elements of working models were associated with EMS. Attachment style, as a variable, may be too generalised to be a significant factor in affect regulation. More likely elements of working models such as schema, impact the regulation of negative affect.

The most controversial finding is that 48% of those who completed the DIF subscale were found to have DIF. This result was imbedded in the expected finding that NA is positively associated with DIF. Indigenous people high in NA tend to have difficulties in identifying their feelings. This suggests that nearly half the Aboriginal population in regional (the mid-west) Western Australia may have alexithymia (as the DIF subscale is predictive of alexithymia) whereas reported incidence rates of alexithymia tend to be around 20% (Bailey & Henry, 2007). This also suggest the etiology is more likely a deficient emotional, social, intellectual etc. development (i.e., the social-developmental model) (Bailey & Henry, 2007). The results support theories such as that of Kreitler (2002) who argues that alexithymia is a defect in the self-regulation of affect due to deficient emotional learning in childhood. The alternate, physicalist theories (i.e., neurological models) (Bailey & Henry, 2007) of alexithymia make no sense in the context of the current findings, meaning it does not seem plausible that half the Indigenous population in the study have neurological deficits.  

Whether NA leads to elevated levels of alexithymia or whether alexithymia leads to increased NA is unknown. Perhaps deficits in emotional processing (due to alexithymia) lead to poor affect regulation. Alternately, the experience of NA may contribute to alexithymia (Bailey & Henry, 2007). For example, the less an individual can identify, express, and exchange emotion, the more emotional regulation strategies emphasise negative emotions and repressed emotional experiences (Besharat & Shahidi, 2014). This is descriptive of alexithymia as those individuals lack knowledge of their own emotional experiences and are prone to undifferentiated negative affective states (Montebarocci et al., 2004).

The results of this study confirm that DIF is associated with increased NA (Bailey & Henry, 2007). DIF either represents the effect, or the cause, of psychological distress associated with NA (Bailey & Henry, 2007). These variables are linked to dissociation (Bailey & Henry, 2007) or the misinterpretation of environmental demands on the individual (Connelly & Denney, 2007), suggesting a split in cognition and affect. In general, although a lack of emotional appraisal seems to be associated with emotional dysregulation, the mechanism of affect regulation is unclear.

Emotional Maladjustment Among Indigenous Australians

It has been found that NA is significantly high among the Indigenous participants, that 48% of participants that completed the DIF subscale were found to have DIF, and that NA is positively associated with DIF. However, low statistical power renders the EFA results questionable. So, why incorporate them into the results?  

Factor analysis is the method of choice for interpreting self-reporting questionnaires (Williams et al.,2010). Therefore, the EFA was the technique best suited to maximising the findings from the data (i.e., the self-reporting questionnaires), even if those findings are exploratory descriptions of the population and to be treated with caution. Simply, it allowed all the data to be presented and a base-line interpretation to be made. This allows future research in an area where no data previously existed. Additionally, the calculation of sample size and sample to variable ratio is an imprecise methodology. Since 50 cases may be adequate for factor analysis (Williams et al., 2010) it is of greater benefit to present the findings of an EFA, than to omit them. Furthermore, data from the EFA (i.e., the correlation matrices) have been relevant to the interpretation of the preceding hypotheses.

Table 8 summarised the results of the EFA. Factor 1 is the combined belief that there is something wrong with you as an individual, that you are unlovable and inadequate, that you will inevitably fail, and that you expect to be treated badly by others, such as being abused, mistreated, or cheated on. Factor 2 is a measure of NA, specifically feeling upset, hostile and ashamed. Factor 3 represents a difficulty in identifying feelings, particularly deficits in identifying somatic symptoms i.e., physical/bodily sensations that neither doctors understand, nor the individual.

The EFA incorporate EMS into the findings, meaning that they play a significant role in affect regulation. Those schemas fall into two domains – disconnection and rejection, and impaired autonomy and performance. Core beliefs of being unwanted, inferior or unlovable (disconnection and rejection), as well as the undermining of a child’s perceived competence (impaired autonomy and performance) (Dozois et al., 2009) may make individuals vulnerable to dysregulation of negative emotions, in times of elevated negative affect. As Tang et al. (2017) found that schema prime emotional processing, EMS may precipitate elevated NA, moderating an individual’s vulnerability in affect regulation.

For example, EMS may precipitate the overemphasis of negative perception. Primed by those EMS, negative emotion may influence an individual’s perception of self, others, and the world (Watson & Clark, 1984; Watson, Clark, & Carey, 1988) to such an extent as to limit an individual’s ability to regulate emotion, to think clearly, to deliberate, to form an intention, and to act in manner free of (negative) affect. This potential vulnerability indicates the bypassing of cognitive appraisal which would lead to behavioural deficiencies. An individuals’ actions would not be free pervasive negative affect brought on by thoughts of rejection or failure, and possibly leading to unmindful, impulsive behaviour, such as aggression (Black, Heyman, & Slep, 2001). This agitated state describes EM, reinforced by those individuals not knowing what was going on inside them (DIF).

In addition to NA and DIF, EMS complete the model of EM. The question of emotional dysregulation can, in future research, be explored at both the associative and schematic level as per the SPAARS model of emotion (Power & Dalgeish, 1997, 2008). Affect vulnerability may be triggered by NA at a nonconscious associative level, or by EMS that bias affect regulation (Beck & Clark, 1988). Another possibility is that EMS are contingent upon mood state. 

Another possibility for future research is the study of emotional resilience, as the approximate converse of EM, could be studied according three three facets of EM. Based on this research addressing core maladaptive beliefs, the management of negative emotions in the lives of Indigenous Australians, and difficulties in connecting with those emotions, presents an immediate strategy towards greater emotional resilience.

The limitations of this study are twofold. First, the statistical power that make the findings relevant. Second, the lack of culturally specific adornments. The first issue is problematic to much Indigenous research as Australian Aboriginal populations in any given area, tend to be low. The second issue relies on the assumption that persons are differentiated based on culture. It is acknowledged that that the factors of EM are not culturally specific. It is argued that EM manifests in the study population according to measures of NA, DIF, and EMS in a way specific to the cultural/historical heritage of this people, inclusive of trauma and socioeconomic disadvantage. It is not claimed that the ongoing trauma associated with the Stolen Generations, or other variables such as specific Nyoongar schema, are excluded as potential additional factors of EM.

The first limitation calls for creative methodologies to tease out what is known of Indigenous SEWB. The second presents avenues for future research. The priority would be to confirm the high levels of negative emotionality in the lives of Indigenous Australians, in combination with its correlate, DIF. It is suggested that this research be replicated, based on the three-factor structure of EM. However, as the sample is required to be larger, the questionnaire should be adapted for online use. Another area of research is the etiology of alexithymia as a developmental disorder characterised by the split of cognition and affect (Kreitler, 2002).

In conclusion, this study is the first to explore a negative construal of emotional wellbeing among Indigenous Australians. The primary evidence on which the research was based was observed maladaptive behaviour expressed with negative affect, in addition to circumstantial evidence linking maladaptive behaviour and negative affect, and maladaptive behaviour in Indigenous populations. The study found that NA is significantly high among the Indigenous participants, and confirming previous research, that NA is positively associated with DIF. Tentatively, this study also concludes that associated with the elevation of affect, and the inability to interpret it, are EMS.

Tentatively, the most reasonable definition of EM is: A state of unmanageable negative affect, undifferentiated from bodily sensations, and moderated by thoughts of rejection and personal failure. 

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