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7 Ways That Multiple Traumas Can Lead to Growth

How negative experiences change us.

Key points

  • Many people experience more than one trauma.
  • Researchers investigated the effects of multiple traumas by interviewing those who had experienced them.
  • Analysis revealed seven ways people may change as the result of multiple traumas.
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For trauma survivors, a driving concern is whether their experiences stymie or spark psychological growth. Overwhelmingly, research points to the various consequences of trauma, including anxiety, depression, problems with emotion regulation, and PTSD. At the same time, studies also lend support for post-traumatic growth (PTG), a process by which individuals change in positive ways in response to traumatic events, like bereavement, illness, and toxic relationships.

It is thought that PTG can lead to greater personal strength, stronger relationships, and new possibilities that reach beyond what the person had prior to the traumatic event. And although PTG has positive ends, it is a difficult process. The opportunity for growth lies in the emotional struggle and the conscious efforts to resolve trauma’s negative effects and to revise one’s beliefs about the world.

But how do people change when they’ve experienced multiple traumas? This was the question posed by psychologist Matt Brooks of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom and his collaborators. In order to investigate this line of inquiry, the team administered the post-traumatic growth interview schedule, a semi-structured questionnaire that explores the factors that promote and inhibit growth and change in the aftermath of trauma, to 26 participants. The sample was from Northwest England, mostly white, and all had experienced more than one trauma.

What did the researchers find? The analysis revealed two overarching themes and seven sub-themes, which are reported below:

Theme 1: Outcomes of Trauma

1. Managing subsequent traumas. Of the participants who felt that their traumas helped them grow in positive ways, most felt that they were better prepared to deal with other traumatic experiences that may have or could occur. By contrast, five participants shared that their previous traumas made coping with subsequent traumas more difficult. They expressed feeling so overwhelmed by prior experiences, that they essentially abandoned efforts to reclaim the way they used to see themselves and the world.

2. Identity changes. Half of the participants reported that their traumatic experiences became part of their life story in some measure. Moreover, roughly a third of the participants attempted to redefine themselves and establish a new sense of identity, by, for example, changing their given name or physical appearance. Their traumatic experiences incited them to “fight back” and start anew. Yet five participants felt that they were a mere “shadow” of their former selves, and had “no sense” of who they were.

3. Co-existing positive and negative changes. Nearly all (24) participants reported having both positive and negative changes in the aftermath of trauma, with anxiety being predominant. Participants also expressed achieving a “more balanced outlook” that included greater creativity, compassion, gratitude, and openness.

Theme 2: Processing Trauma

4. Trauma-related thoughts. For some participants, thinking about their trauma was a “barrier” to their growth, while others felt it sparked their personal evolution. Fifteen participants engaged in deep reflection on their experiences. Although it was a difficult process, it allowed personal contemplation that brought about a better understanding of what had happened to them.

5. Control perceptions. In the aftermath of their traumas, survivors had varied perceptions about the control they felt they had over their lives. Approximately two-thirds of the participants felt that their traumas, which were perpetrated by others, made them feel powerless. Thus, becoming more assertive and in control were viewed as positive growth coming out of the trauma. Many participants also felt that their hard-won autonomy also gave them a renewed sense of purpose.

6. Spiritual challenges. The majority of participants contemplated their spiritual and religious beliefs, and how they influenced their conceptualizations of their own growth. Many participants felt that religion did not help in their growth. Some even felt that God had “allowed” the trauma to happen, and that impeded their growth. By contrast, a smaller group of participants felt that their trauma encouraged them to explore other belief systems, which was positive.

7. Social support and disclosure. All participants stated the instrumental importance of social support for their growth. They pointed to two factors. The first factor was the reactions they received when disclosing the trauma. The second factor was the pros and cons of getting support from others. As one participant shared: “I feel my traumatic experiences were dealt with due to my incredible support network. Without them, I wouldn't have been able to cope with what life has, and continues to, throw at me. I have always been able to cope and know where and who to seek solace in when dealing with trauma and stress.”

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