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Post-Traumatic Growth and Post-Traumatic Stress Can Coexist

Personal growth is possible in the wake of post-traumatic stress, a study finds.

This post is in response to
Once You've Survived: This Is What It Takes to Thrive Again
Pixabay/Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

A new study by researchers at the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri (DCC) has identified specific coping strategies that can help survivors of natural disasters experience some form of personal growth in tandem with the devastating trauma of living through a natural disaster.

In 2011, an EF-5 tornado with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour ripped through Joplin, Missouri killing 161 people, injuring 1,150, and destroying approximately 7,000 homes. It was one of the most destructive tornadoes in U.S. history. The ongoing mission of DCC is to enhance preparedness, recovery, and resilience in children, families, schools, and communities affected by disasters and communities in crisis.

Their latest paper, “Post-Traumatic Growth 2.5 Years After the 2011 Joplin, Missouri Tornado," was recently published in the Journal of Family Social Work. For this study, the MU researchers surveyed 438 people who lived through the 2011 Joplin tornado two-and-a-half years after the event. Surprisingly, they found that many survivors had experienced unexpected personal growth despite pervasive symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Over time, survivors of natural disasters have the potential to experience post-traumatic growth (PTG) that can coexist with post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms.

As I type this post on Jan. 14, 2018, the death toll from the Montecito mudslides has risen to 20. The recovery effort and the search for the missing continues. Portions of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara are closed indefinitely for clean up and repairs. The back-to-back, horrific devastation and psychological trauma of the Thomas Fire—which was the largest in California history—followed by mudslides, which turned people's homes into matchsticks and blew them off their foundations in the middle of the night, is hard to wrap one's head around.

Clearly, the gut-wrenching loss of life and destruction caused by natural disasters linked to severe weather (in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, monsoons, wildfires, flash floods, mudslides, etc.) is becoming a part of our daily lives.

Increasingly, it seems that the coping strategies unearthed by the Disaster and Community Crisis Center at the University of Missouri will be an indispensable resource to help survivors of natural disasters thrive again. (For more, see "Once You've Survived This Is What It Takes to Thrive Again.")

What Are the Psychological Repercussions of Surviving a Natural Disaster?

Individuals who survive natural disasters often experience a broad range of mental health issues that can include PTSD, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, adjustment disorder, and depression.

"When disasters occur, mental health professionals—community organizers, social workers, case managers, and counselors—often work in partnership with local, state and federal organizations to respond," lead author Jennifer First said in a statement. "It is important that these professionals understand that the negative consequences of trauma can coexist with positive perceptions of growth. In fact, post-traumatic stress may drive a search for meaning following a disaster.”

For this study, the researchers examined the relationship between each person’s disaster experience, his or her post-traumatic stress symptoms, as well as the frequency of interpersonal communication with family, friends, and neighbors.

Interpersonal Communication and Connectedness Are Key to Post-Traumatic Growth

The key to experiencing personal growth or positive change in the aftermath of a natural disaster appears to be strongly linked to maintaining a robust support network via interpersonal communication with other survivors.

Vicky Mieseler is the chief administrative officer of the Ozark Center Comprehensive Behavioral Health Services in Joplin. She led the community mental health response in the aftermath of the 2011 tornado and also helped research the latest study.

In a statement, Mieseler summed up the team's findings: "We found that more communication between people who experienced the tornado and their families, friends, and neighbors was related to more post-traumatic growth among survivors. A takeaway is that mental health providers can help foster growth by promoting connections and communication among survivors in long-term, post-disaster communities."


Jennifer First, Nathan First, Jordan Stevens, Vicky Mieseler, and J. Brian Houston. "Post-Traumatic Growth 2.5 years After the 2011 Joplin, Missouri Tornado." Journal of Family Social Work (First published online: November 30, 2017) DOI: 10.1080/10522158.2017.1402529

J. Brian Houston, Jennifer First, Matthew L. Spialek, Mary E. Sorenson, Toby Mills-Sandoval, McKenzie Lockett, Nathan L. First, Pascal Nitiéma, Sandra F. Allen, and Betty Pfefferbaum. "Randomized Controlled Trial of the Resilience and Coping Intervention (RCI) with Undergraduate University Students." Journal of American College Health (2017) DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2016.1227826

Jennifer First, Nathan L. First, and J. Brian Houston. "Resilience and Coping Intervention (RCI): A Group Intervention to Foster College Student Resilience." Journal of Social Work with Groups (2017) DOI: 10.1080/01609513.2016.1272032

Sandra F. Allen, Betty Pfefferbaum, Pascal Nitiéma, Rose L. Pfefferbaum, J. Brian Houston, Grady S. McCarter III, and Shelley Ryan Gray. "Resilience and Coping Intervention with Children and Adolescents in At-Risk Neighborhoods." Journal of Loss and Trauma (2016) DOI: 10.1080/15325024.2015.1072014

Daniel J. Brown, Rachel Arnold, David Fletcher, and Martyn Standage. "Human thriving: a conceptual debate and literature review." European Psychologist (2017). DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000294

Daniel J. Brown, Rachel Arnold, Thomas Reid, and Gareth Roberts. "A qualitative exploration of thriving in elite sport." Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. (2017) DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1354339