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Posttraumatic Growth: Positive Psychological Changes After Trauma

After a trauma, victims, their loved ones and the professional community are often concerned with the subsequent psychological and physical ramifications. There is a plethora of research that documents the deleterious effects of trauma. While it is only natural to want to understand the damaging effects of trauma, newer research is examining the positive psychological effects that may emerge as a result of trauma. Readers may recall adages such as, “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger” or “Every cloud has a silver lining.” These wise sayings were alluding to a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth (PTG), which has received considerable attention over the past decade. According to Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996), PTG refers to positive psychological changes that an individual experiences as a result of a struggle with highly-challenging life events. They found that some individuals who had experienced trauma often developed a greater appreciation for life, a better way of relating with others, and encountered a spiritual awakening. They also discovered several factors that are associated with growth; for example, trauma severity (more severe trauma is associated with greater growth), sex (females tend to experience more PTG than males) and age (positive correlation between age and PTG). This article presents a study that examined PTG after September 11th.

Following the events of September 11th, public awareness initiatives emphasized the potential impact of this event on psychological well-being. Numerous studies examined the psychological distress caused by this event, paying particular attention to post-traumatic stress.  The present study assessed PTG in undergraduates living in close proximity to the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th, 2001.  The researchers were interested in examining the relationships between PTG and trauma exposure, psychological mindedness, exposure to trauma and perceived social support. The study participants were 82 college students (Mean age= 26.9 +/- 8.7 yrs, 84% female).  The majority self-identified as 3rd or 4th year students (78%), White (52%) and Catholic (48%).

Independent samples t tests were performed in order to compare gender differences on PTGI and Psychological Mindedness. The results indicated a trend whereby woman scored higher on PTGI (M = 72.64, SD = 26.04) compared to men (M = 58.15, SD = 27.48), t(80) = -1.824, p<.10. A similar trend was observed between men and woman on psychological mindedness scales; woman scored higher (M = 65.88, SD = 5.54) compared to men (M = 62.92, SD = 6.56), t(80) = -1.718, p<.10. A bivariate regression analysis was conducted to evaluate the relationship between age and posttraumatic growth. Results show that age was a significant predictor of posttraumatic growth (β = -.277, p <.05).

Results suggest that the study participants experienced post-traumatic growth. Moreover, growth was found to be correlated with psychological mindedness.  Specifically, results indicate that dimensions of psychological mindedness (belief in the benefits of discussing one’s problems, r= .25, p <.05; willingness to discuss problems with others, r= .20, p <.05; and openness to change, r= .24 p <.05) were positively related to post-traumatic growth.  Perceived social support was also positively related to post-traumatic growth (r= .36, p<.05).  Use of resources further contributed to improvements in posttraumatic growth and psychological mindedness. A one-way ANOVA revealed that participants who sought professional resources (M = 93.1, SD = 17.6) reported the highest posttraumatic growth scores compared to those who sought personal resources (M = 74.3, SD = 27.7) or no resources (M = 60.8, SD = 23.0), F (2, 76) = 6.86, p < .05. Similarly, participants who pursued professional resources also had significantly greater scores on psychological mindedness (M = 69.1, SD = 4.5) compared to participants who sought personal resources (M = 66.0, SD = 6.1) or no resources (M = 64.3, SD = 5.4), F (2, 76) = 3.16, p < .05.

The goal of this study was to explore factors that are associated with the development of posttraumatic growth. The results suggest that psychological mindedness significantly contributed to posttraumatic growth. Specifically, we found significant relationships among belief in the benefits of discussing one’s problems, willingness to discuss problems with others, openness to change and scores on posttraumatic growth. Furthermore, students who reported perceived social support also tended to report greater gains in scores on posttraumatic growth. Students who participated in the use of professional resources such as psychotherapy indicated significantly greater scores on posttraumatic growth and psychological mindedness.

This study broadens our understanding of post-traumatic growth and identifies the factors that foster its development.  These findings easily inform clinical interventions and community models aimed at helping individuals more successfully respond to traumatic events. When it comes to treatment, it is important to tailor the approach around the unique needs of the patient; however, generally speaking, trauma victims are encouraged to speak immediately after the trauma and to speak often about the trauma. While clinicians may be tempted to explore early on the positive implications that may emerge as a result of the trauma, it is important to resist that urge. Positive reframing or assessing the benefits prematurely can prevent trauma victims from fully processing the event (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 2004). To learn more about PTG and its clinical implications, readers are advised to review Calhoun and Tedeschi’s (2004) article, The Foundations of Posttraumatic Growth: New Considerations. Resick, Monson and Rizvi (2007) also provide a step- by-step treatment approach for treating posttraumatic stress disorder. This chapter can be found in Barlow’s (2007) Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders.

Milton A. Fuentes, PsyD is Associate Professor of Psychology at Montclair State University and Daniel Cruz, MA is

Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Montclair State University.

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