Broaden And Build Theory - Childhood Trauma Recovery

Broaden And Build Theory

Broaden and Build Theory was devised by Barbara Fredrickson (1998).

Individuals who have experienced significant childhood trauma, as adults, are more prone than average to negative emotions such as anxiety, and, in some cases (e.g. those who have developed complex PTSD as a result of their childhood experiences) their day-to-day living may be dominated by operating in ‘survival mode’ (a persistent state of fight / flight and hypervigilance). This state of mind leads to a NARROW FOCUS OF ATTENTION AND A RESTRICTED REPERTOIRE OF BEHAVIORS.

In contrast, positive emotions BROADEN our attention and behavioral repertoire. Positive emotions include : gratitude, love, hope, interest, curiosity, amusement, awe and joy.



In one study, participants were divided into three groups :

GROUP ONE : participants in group one were shown films which encouraged POSITIVE EMOTIONS

GROUP TWO : participants were shown films which tended to induce NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

GROUP THREE : participants were shown films that induced NO EMOTIONS



GROUP ONE (participants who were shown films which encouraged POSITIVE EMOTIONS) : showed increased CREATIVITY, INVENTIVENESS and ABILITY TO TAKE ‘BIG PICTURE’ PERSPECTIVES (supporting the idea that experiencing positive emotions helps the individual to broaden his/her focus of attention – see above) compared to GROUPS TWO and THREE.


Also, longitudinal studies also show that experiencing positive emotions are also associated with increased RESILIENCE and FLOURISHING (see below):



Positive emotions are very transient. This can lead to us trying constantly to replenish them through short-term pleasure seeking. However, pleasure seeking (e.g. by buying consumer goods, drinking, sex, drug-taking etc) tends to lead to diminishing returns and becoming trapped on a ‘hedonic treadmill’ (see below). 

Therefore, argues Fredrickson, constantly seeking positive emotions as an end in themselves tends to be counter-productive.

Instead, we should use positive emotions (such as creativity and curiosity) as a stepping-stone to build ‘life resources’, which, in turn, we can draw on to sustain long-term life satisfaction.

Meditation, in particular, a variety of meditation called ‘loving-kindness meditation’, has been shown to be a useful tool to help us facilitate this process.



Benefits of being a resilient individual include :

– being better able to manage emotions arising from experiencing negative events

– being more able to cope with traumatic events

– being more able to cope with everyday stress

– are more likely to regard problems as manageable

– are more able to turn negative events to their advantage

– are more likely to think of ways in which negative events may actually sometimes give rise to new opportunities

– are more likely to perceive problems as challenges and take positive action to solve them, or at least to limit the damage that they might do

– experience fewer adverse physical effects of stress (e.g. in relation to blood pressure)



1) KEEPING A DIARY – research has demonstrated that people who write about their negative experiences (e.g. in a diary or journal) are, on average, more able to cope with them than those who do not. This is thought to be due to the fact that organizing and structuring one’s thoughts ALLOWS US TO MENTALLY PROCESS THEM MORE THOROUGHLY which, in turn, is believed to diminish the negative emotional impact that they may have on us.


a) DISTRACT – it is known that doing nothing but sit and ruminate about a negative event almost invariably makes us feel worse. It is usually better, therefore, to distract our thoughts away from the negative event (although, of course, it is never possible to be completely successful at this and we need to accept that thoughts of the negative event will continue to drift in and out of our consciousness).

Very simple techniques can be used to mentally distract ourselves, such as concentrating on an external physical object (this technique is often used in the meditative practice known as ‘MINDFULNESS’ – click here to read one of my articles on this), counting backwards in 3s down from 100, playing computer chess etc. It is important for us to use these distraction techniques as soon as possible because, in general, the longer we ruminate over a particular problem the harder it becomes to stop doing so.

Distraction works because it is all but impossible to think about two different things at once.

b) DISTANCE – this technique refers to keeping in mind that just because we interpret a situation in a particular way by no means implies the interpretation is accurate and reflects objective reality. In other words, just because we believe the interpretation is true, does NOT mean it is true.

Clinically depressed people, for instance, tend to interpret events far more negatively than would generally be considered to be objectively warranted.

In order for us to help ourselves to distance ourselves from the effects of negative events we can also pose certain questions to ourselves such as the following :

a) What things happen that are worse than my situation?

b) Who is worse off than me?

c) How can I interpret what has happened to me in a more positive way?

d) Despite the situation I am in now, what are the good things that still exist in my life?

e) Will what has happened matter in 10 days/10 weeks/10 months/10 years?

As well as asking ourselves the above questions, it can also be very helpful to think of someone we know who is resilient and good at dealing with life’s problems. We can then ask ourselves how s/he might manage a situation similar to the one we are in and then try to do likewise. Psychologists call this technique MODELLING.

c) DISPUTE – I have already stated that when we are depressed we tend to interpret events more negatively than is reasonably warranted. Psychologists sometimes refer to this tendency as suffering from AUTOMATIC NEGATIVE THOUGHTS (ANTs).

When we have such negative thoughts about certain situations we need to start getting into the habit of disputing/challenging them and trying to think of more positive ways of interpreting whatever it is that we are having negative thoughts about (this technique underpins a therapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT – click here to read my article about how CBT can help us to overcome our negative thinking patterns).


The term ‘BENEFIT-FINDING’, in this context, is used by psychologists to refer to how resilient individuals are sometimes able to identify new, positive opportunities that can arise when a seemingly negative event occurs. An example might be losing a job, but, in response to this, starting a business which becomes very successful.

In fact, it is definitely worth remembering that positive opportunities can arise from the most unpromising set of circumstances and doing so will help us to manage difficult periods in our lives.



The psychologist Richard Davidson has conducted research demonstrating the relationship between activity in particular brain structures and a person’s emotional state. His research showed that :

1) Individuals with left frontal lobe (LFL) dominance tend to be :

– optimistic

– positive

– self-assured

– willing to take on challenges

whereas, conversely :

2) Individuals with overactive right frontal lobes (RFL) tend to be more :

– negative

– anxious

– withdrawn

– passive

prone to excessive worry

– prone to depression

Let’s look at individuals in category one, above (high LFL activity), in a little more detail – in relation to stress, those in this category were found to much better at neutralizing the negative emotions which accompany it.

As well as having high LFL activity, research has shown that this neutralizing ability is also connected to an ability to inhibit activity in another brain region called the amygdala, which I have written about in detail in other articles; for those not familiar with this brain structure, however, it is an area intimately involved in the generation of feelings of fear and anxiety.

With both high activity in the LFL, coupled with the ability to inhibit the amygdala, individuals in category one are much better at tolerating stress and are much more able to stay calm and positive in difficult and testing circumstances.

In relation to the above, there is very good news for those of us who currently do not have high activity in the LFL. I explain this below :


Davidson conducted research looking at what happens when people PRACTISE positive moods, positive attitudes and optimism.

Two ways to practice these are :

1) by the use of self-hypnosis

2) by the use of mindfulness meditation.

By using self-hypnosis,( by repeatedly listening to self-hypnosis CDs/MP3s etc ) related to positive thinking, overcoming anxiety, mood enhancement and so on, or, alternatively, by practicing mindfulness meditation, studies have shown that LFL activity can be gradually increased, which, in turn, leads to the development of psychological and emotional resilience.


By training the brain through activities such as self-hypnosis or mindfulness meditation the LFL becomes more active, and so, over time, the individuals state of mind becomes increasingly positive and calm – the more often a calm and positive state is induced by techniques such as self-hypnosis and mindfulness meditation, the more likely it is that the individual will come to find that calmness and positivity become a permanent psychological characteristic (or ‘trait’, as this is referred to by psychologists). This can occur due to a feature of the brain called neuroplasticity (click here to read one of my articles on this)



Not only can one recover from trauma, one can grow as a result (this is referred to by psychologists as POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH; click here to read my article on this) and, indeed, flourish.

In this context, the psychologists Hubbert and So used the word ‘flourishing’ to mean arriving at a higher level of psychological functioning’ than one had prior to the experience of trauma. This may include :

– having a greater appreciation of life than one had had prior to the experience of trauma

– greater appreciation of relationships with others

– a better awareness of what really matters in life and a new ability to prioritize in relation to this new awareness

– a new appreciation of one’s own mental strength and ‘toughness’

– an ability and inclination to use adverse experiences in a positive way

– the development of a spiritual side to one’s nature





According to Huppert and So, there are three CORE features of flourishing and six ADDITIONAL features.

Let’s look at each of these in turn :



– positive emotions


engagement and interest

(eg having interests which completely absorb us so that we lose the feeling of self-consciousness with which we are usually encumbered – rather like a young child lost in a world of play and imagination)


meaning and purpose

(having ‘meaning’ in life often means pursuing an endeavour for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end such as money and material gain)





– optimism



(the ability to be able to cope with life’s set-backs without being overwhelmed)


– vitality


– self-determination

(being substantially in control of one’s own life –  e.g. not being blindly dictated to by convention, society or culture)


– positive relationships



The research conducted by Hubbert and So suggest that only about 18% of adults in the UK could be defined as ‘flourishing’. This compares with 33% of adults in Denmark, who, according to the statistics, are the most ‘flourishing’ people in Europe.



Whilst most nations measure success by the country’s generated wealth (referred to as GDP, or GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT), the current government in the UK is now also looking at ways to measure people’s ‘happiness’ in order to determine national success, which theories such as the above will, no doubt, will help to inform.

The area of psychology which deals with human ‘flourishing’ is known as POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY (click here to read my article about this).




Research carried out by experts in the field of positive psychology has led to the finding that there are several traps individuals fall into  which prevent them from flourishing. These traps can also be described as PSYCHOLOGICAL OBSTACLES.

Of course, once we are aware of these, it is much easier to avoid them. In this article, therefore, I intend to list and give a brief explanation of four particularly important ones. These are :





Let’s examine each of these in turn :

1) THE NEGATIVITY BIAS –  this refers to the fact that research has shown that people concentrate and focus much more on what goes wrong in their lives than what goes right. For example, if someone insults us, we are likely to focus on it, and, indeed, take it more seriously, than if someone compliments us.

Also, if we experience a good event and a bad event close together, of about the same importance as one another, we will usually dwell much more on the bad event.

There are many other examples, but, to sum up, it can be stated that negative emotions reduce our level of contentment much more than positive ones increase it (there are evolutionary reasons for this which, regrettably, I do not have room to go into here). Because of the disproportionate effects on us of positive and negative events, psychologists have even put forward I formula ; it is claimed that the ratio of positive to negative events in our lives needs to be about 3:1 for us to retain a reasonable sense of contentment! (I’m sure you’ll share my view that this formula is very simplistic and shouldn’t be taken too seriously!!)

2) LACK OF SELF-CONTROL – Psychological research has shown that, all else being equal, the more self-control we have, the more contented we are likely to be. Also, encouragingly, self-control is a skill which can be developed (this is especially important news for sufferers of borderline personality disorder (BPD) as self-regulation is one of the primary symptoms of the condition). By exercising self-control in one life area, it becomes much easier to exercise it in others.

Research conducted by Muraven et al revealed that lack of self-control was a very significant factor in the causation of personal and social problems.

3) SOCIAL COMPARISON – In the UK, this is sometimes referred to flippantly as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’; however, it is a syndrome which causes a lot of unhappiness. Essentially, it involves comparing ourselves (in terms of what we own, our social status etc) with those we regard as socially ‘superior’. In countries like the UK, this tendency is becoming almost epidemic due to the near-worship of wealthy celebrities. There is a tendency to look at these lives of the rich and famous and to feel that life has ‘short-changed’ us (even though, in reality, many of these celebrities may be deeply unhappy, drug addicted, alcoholics).

This causes people to stop making purchases because they need the item, but, instead, to make them in the hope of elevating their social status, impressing others and gaining respect (which is usually futile, as, in fact, ostentatious acquisition is more likely to inspire jealousy, bitterness and resentment).

Indeed, acquiring more and more expensive material items is an empty and pointless strategy in terms of trying to improve one’s psychological well-being. This is due to a phenomenon which psychologists have termed THE HEDONIC TREADMILL.

4) The Hedonic Treadmill – When a person buys an expensive item, such as, for example, a new sports car, s/he quickly gets used to it (or, to put it in psychological terms, ADAPTS to it) and the novelty rapidly wears off. The same thing happens when a positive event occurs (eg a promotion at work). In other words, positive changes quickly become ‘the norm’ and our ‘happiness level’ returns to what is known as our SET-POINT.

Because of this phenomenon, individuals can get caught in a vicious cycle : they make a purchase to lift their spirits but any positive effect quickly fades away so they are driven to make another…and another…and another. In the UK, this has led to a syndrome which is informally termed  ‘shopaholism’ – the hapless shopper becomes addicted to making purchases and is constantly on the look out for his/her next fix.

Let’s end end with a positive research finding. It is this : this process of psychological adaptation also applies when things go wrong in our lives : we feel worse for a while, but, gradually, our ‘natural happiness level’ returns to its set-point.





David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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