View of One’s Role in Trauma Impacts Development of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often occurs following an experience or the witnessing of a highly-stressful, traumatic event. An act of violence, a severe injury or the witnessing of a fatal car accident are all examples of the types of tragedy that may result in a case of PTSD.

PTSD is characterized by a chronic reaction to the trauma. It is often exhibited in recurring anxiety attacks, low self-esteem, sadness and insomnia, and some patients experience difficult flashbacks. The symptoms are often so severe that the individual may be challenged to maintain employment or complete everyday tasks.

Some individuals suffering from PTSD may also ruminate over their experience, which can unintentionally replay the trauma and add to their distress and symptoms of PTSD.

Prior research has demonstrated that an individual’s understanding of his or her role in the trauma may predict the severity of PTSD experienced. Those who believe that their role was as a victim may experience more negative outcomes, while those who believe that their role was a victorious survivor may develop their sense of self and instead of PTSD, experience post-traumatic growth.

The identification of a sense of self within a trauma is called centrality, and how individuals perceive self could be critical in helping clinicians who treat those with PTSD. To examine the role of centrality in the development of PTSD, Jessica M. Groleau of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina examined 187 college students who were survivors of a traumatic life event within the past two years.

The research involved looking at students’ reports of centrality, rumination, symptom severity and their assumptive world view, or how they view their surroundings and themselves in light of the trauma experienced.

The results of the research showed that centrality was a critical factor in PTSD, but it was also a contributor to post-traumatic growth. Groleau discovered that symptoms of PTSD and post-traumatic growth were independent, demonstrating that centrality may affect the development of PTSD and post-traumatic growth in a simultaneous fashion.

Groleau explains that the disruption associated with a trauma that affects patients’ cognitive functions can not only lead to PTSD, but can also, separately and distinctively, lead to processes that develop growth following a traumatic event.

Groleau’s research is an important contribution to the understanding of responses to traumatic events, given that it demonstrates centrality as an element that can contribute to both the development of PTSD and post-traumatic growth.

The study’s findings may act as a springboard to help clinicians understand how to enhance centrality’s role in growth.

The findings from the study are published in a recent online publication of the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Practice, and Policy.