Who Grows the Most From Trauma?

Being able to take a bad situation and turn it into something good is a valuable skill from a mental health standpoint. Perhaps there’s no greater test of this skill than being confronted with a situation that’s not just bad, but traumatic.

Different people seem to respond to trauma in different ways. One aspect of posttraumatic behavior that seems to vary from one individual to the next is growth. Some people stand out in their ability to adapt to trauma by finding a new perspective on life and new priorities. If we could figure out what sets these people apart, maybe we could learn something from them.

A new study by researchers in Hong Kong and Houston has some ideas on the traits and behaviors that might help these people grow following traumatic events. The researchers surveyed 454 college students who had experienced traumatic events including natural disasters, abusive relationships, life-threatening situations, and serious accidents.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers identified four traits and behaviors that were associated with greater growth in the aftermath of these traumas:

  • Optimism
  • Seeking out social support
  • A tendency to express emotions
  • Seeing one’s self as interdependent with others

Looking a little deeper, the researchers found some overlap between these traits. In particular, people who tended to include their relationships with others as part of their identities were more likely to seek out support and more inclined toward emotional expression. Those who were more optimistic also tended to prioritize expressing their emotions.

Therefore, finding social support and expressing emotions may be especially important behaviors for growing from trauma. In fact, these coping strategies seem to be part of the reason that optimism and interdependence with others are associated with posttraumtic growth.

This study didn’t consider other coping strategies that might be helpful in processing traumatic events. In other words, these behaviors aren’t the full story because there are almost certainly other variables involved in how different individuals process trauma differently. What these findings do tell us, though, is that emotional expression and social support seeking are two behaviors that seem to facilitate personal growth in the aftermath of trauma.