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As members know, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) is an international organization committed to sharing information about the effects of trauma through the dissemination of knowledge and research findings from a multitude of settings. Members include those from psychology, social work, nursing, counseling, researchers from diverse disciplines and more generally advocates that wish to understand and reduce traumatic stressors and subsequent consequences.

Each year ISTSS holds an Annual Meeting where colleagues from all over the world attend to exchange and learn about the vast nature of trauma across a number of settings. The 2015 meeting theme was, “Back to Basics: Integrating Clinical and Scientific Knowledge to Advance the Field of Trauma.” The meeting was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina, a significant trauma, occurred in 2005. Many of the city’s roads and buildings were greatly damaged during the event and, although the majority of residents were evacuated from the city before the storm hit, over 1000 individuals died as a result. Today, New Orleans is still recovering from this traumatic event.

We stayed at the New Orleans Marriott where the conference was being held, a beautiful and grand building in the middle of the French Quarter. At the registration desk, we were met by a large gathering of attendees from all over the world. Some were meeting for the first time and others were old friends that had met at previous ISTSS conferences. The registration area included books for sale, exhibits and other information from key trauma service providers, and most importantly tea and coffee!

After receiving our registration packs, we made our way to the poster viewing room to get our posters set up for the evening’s session. The room was rapidly filling with other keen students and professionals preparing their work for display on the international platform.

We then made our way to the keynote address “PTSD: From Neurobiology to Treatment,” in which John H. Krystal, MD, reviewed how understanding the neurobiology of PTSD could provide a better understanding of this disorder. For those of us coming from a social psychology background, going “back to basics” with this talk was extremely enlightening. After the keynote we referred to the program to decide where to head next. We found ourselves faced with a plethora of choices! We decided on the “Effective Process/ Interventions” symposium, where we learned about the important role of emotional regulation in trauma across different groups. This session was the inspiration for many notes and ideas to bring home to our own research.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the hotel before splitting up to attend the special interest group (SIG) meetings that applied most to us as individuals. The meetings provided an opportunity for members to meet and discuss a particular area of trauma interest such as child trauma, family systems, gender and trauma and early interventions. We each found the meetings interesting, informative, and a great opportunity to meet others with the same interests.  

Then we made our way to the “Childhood Trauma” symposium where we heard more about how trauma can affect individuals in diverse ways through the stress response system and how gender differences relate to PTSD symptoms. Then we moved on to the “Public Health” symposium, where we heard more about the impacts of trauma on both the body and mind. Our final session of the day was the “Public Health” paper presentation, which helped pull together information relating to coping behaviors and health care services which can assist in this process. By just 5:00 pm we had already learned much more than we had expected to about research methods, trauma impact at different stages in the life course and the importance of intervention after trauma experiences.

With heads swirling with information and questions we made our way to the “Author Attended” poster sessions. The room was divided into aisles of hundreds of posters. Conference attendees filled the room and conversations took place on every corner about research and practice. New ideas and theories were blooming all around us (many with glasses of wine in hand). We met with our supervisor and her colleagues and their graduate students, for an exchange of information about our work and making new connections for collaborations. Before we knew it the poster session had ended and it was time for the Welcome Reception, where we were greeted with jazz music and delicious local foods. The room was set up so that attendees could sit together to eat and converse. We sat at a table with many graduate students (we have that look about us). Two lovely women, in particular, told us their story of meeting at an ISTSS meeting when they were starting their postgraduate studies and how they attended the meeting every year together for the last 7 years. Now recent PhD completers and blossoming professionals, they shared information about on their research and practice journey, reassuring us that it can be done! After this superb introduction to the food and music of New Orleans, we made our way to Bourbon Street to continue the local experience before getting ready for Friday’s full day of sessions.

Friday began with a particularly exciting moment for us, watching our supervisor, Cherie Armour, PhD, receive the Chaim and Bela Danieli Young Professional Award in recognition of her excellent work in the traumatic stress field. Following this, we attended the Friday morning keynote address where Anka Ehlers, PhD, FBA, FMedSci spoke about “Intrusive Re-experiencing in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Memory Processes and their Implications for Therapy.” Following were a number of sessions, including child trauma paper presentations, which explored the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult development and mental health.

We then attended the student lunch meeting, which was held in a large ballroom. We picked up our box lunches (sandwiches, cookies, chips and drinks) and made our way to one of the tables. Everyone at the table was friendly, with about 10 students per table and an expert in the field of traumatic stress. The student awards were given out, which recognize the hard work of selected students and mentors. That was followed by “speed-meeting” (based on the format of speed-dating). Trauma experts rotated among the tables and provide students with an opportunity to get to know the expert quickly, ask questions and learn from those who had gone before us. This was particularly interesting for us as coming from Northern Ireland; we got to hear from experts from an international standpoint.

In the afternoon sessions we learned about the impact of various traumatic events on neurological functioning, treating grief and the impact of sleep disturbance with PTSD. We also learned how to submit a graduate or early career award. Then it was time for the second author attended poster session, which featured more fantastic research from a multitude of disciplines, using different research approaches but all trauma focused.

After the poster session, we meet in the lobby with our new ISTSS friends and colleagues. Earlier in the day, we had all been invited for dinner in the French Quarter as part of the award celebration with our supervisor. As we walked together from the hotel to the restaurant conversations flowed easily and with excitement, talking with like-minded people, enjoying the beautiful buildings, warm air and sound of music coming from nearly every restaurant and bar around us. The conversation seemed to never stop, and when we returned to the hotel after dinner a few of us stayed in the hotel lobby where we continued making new connections and learning from expert company.

When Saturday morning arrived (all too quickly), it was hard for us to believe that it was already the final day of the conference. Making our way to the keynote address, “Neurobiology of Early Life Trauma and Attachment,” by Regina Marie Sullivan, PhD, we realized that saying good morning and hello to faces that were now very familiar had become a natural part of the day. After the keynote, we attended the “cognitive processes/ interventions” paper presentations, which stood out due to its diverse range of speakers. We also heard a number of great presentations on military trauma. After lunch, we attended sessions that focused on intimate partner violence/sexual trauma and its impact on mental health. The range of methodological approaches across diverse groups provided great insight into the leading approaches in this particular field.

Saturday afternoon arrived and was, for many, time to go home. The hotel lobby filled with conference attendees enjoying a final cup of coffee together, swapping email addresses and other contact information. Although the conference had ended, lasting connections had been made. This was our first ever ISTSS conference and our first international conference. ISTSS provided us with an opportunity to listen, learn, and meet some of the world’s leading trauma researchers and future innovators in the field.

We look forward to attending the 2016 Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas USA. We already view ourselves as regular “ISTSS’ers!”

About the Authors

Susan Lagdon, BSc, completed her BSc in social psychology in 2012 at Ulster University. Before starting her PhD, she worked as a research assistant at Ulster University’s psychology department for two years. She is currently a final year PhD student; where her research is primarily focused on the experience of types of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), associated mental health outcomes and IPV service experience in Northern Ireland.

Shelly Fletcher, BSc, began her PhD in September 2014 under the supervision of Dr Cherie Armour. Prior, she completed a BSc Hons degree in psychology at Ulster University. After graduating in 2007, she worked as a community mental health support worker before returning to her studies at Ulster University, where she completed her master’s degree in research in September, 2014. Her research project focused on examining the relationship between childhood adversity, cognitive biases and psychotic like experiences.

Carol Rhonda Burns, MRes, completed her BSc (Hons) in social psychology in 2014, achieving a 1st Class Honours Degree. She went on to complete a fully funded master’s degree in research (MRes) in psychology, again completing with a Distinction. She is currently a first year PhD student, having secured the Vice-Chancellor's Research Scholarship funding. Her focus is on typologies of poly-victimisation and the cumulative effects of exposure to victimisation in male populations.