Research Shows Psychological Trauma Can Have a Positive Side
Psychological trauma (e.g., infidelity) can result in posttraumatic growth.
Posted January 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Severe traumas are more likely to negatively affect one’s “core beliefs” (e.g., that people are basically good or the world is safe).
- When trauma violates one’s core beliefs, the cognitive process of “accommodation” occurs; when it confirms the beliefs, “assimilation” occurs.
- Three factors—perceived trauma severity, assimilation, and accommodation—determine whether a survivor derives meaning from the trauma.
This post reviews a recent paper on posttraumatic growth, published in Personality and Individual Differences.
But first, I will explain what we mean by trauma, posttraumatic growth, and core beliefs.
Trauma and core beliefs
Psychological trauma may result from different types of distressing experiences, including being physically or sexually assaulted, exposure to details of a natural disaster, or hearing the news of a loved one’s sudden death.
Trauma tends to impact fundamental assumptions and ideas called schemas or core beliefs. Core beliefs, such as “I am in control of my life,” shape how people select and interpret new information about themselves, others, and the world.
A traumatized victim of assault may instead believe, “I am not in control.” As a result, he or she might stay stuck in survival mode and live a very fearful, cautious, and restricted life.
The effects of trauma are not always negative.
A large number of survivors, including people diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experience posttraumatic growth, which refers to posttrauma positive changes such as greater compassion and gratitude, stronger faith, deeper appreciation for life, more meaningful relationships....
But depreciation—which refers to psychological stuckness and inability to move on—is also common.
An important question concerns our ability to predict when posttraumatic growth occurs and to what extent. The study by O’Connor and colleagues aimed to answer this question.
What trauma does to core beliefs
The authors hypothesized that to predict posttraumatic growth, we must focus on two cognitive operations called accommodation and assimilation.
- Accommodation. Meaning revision, this process occurs when trauma violates one’s core beliefs. An example is rape or infidelity violating a victim’s belief in the goodness of people.
- Assimilation. Meaning confirmation, this process occurs when trauma confirms one’s core beliefs. For instance, being in a terrible car accident or developing a rare disease confirming what the victim already believed—that life is highly unpredictable and dangerous.
Depending on the nature of the distressing incident and the survivors’ pre-trauma beliefs, they may engage in either, both, or neither cognitive processes.
The authors also hypothesized that these mental operations would only influence core beliefs if the traumatic event is perceived as severe.
So, as we will see, the researchers tested a model consisting of three factors: accommodation, assimilation, and trauma severity.
Note, the traumatic event investigated was infidelity. Why infidelity? Partly because being unfaithful is a “generally impactful event that ranges in its perceived severity.”
Investigating the paths to posttraumatic growth and depreciation
The sample comprised 246 individuals; 70% female; 87% heterosexual; 62% White; average age of 23 years old (range of 18 to 52 years); 43% single; of those in a relationship, 15% had a partner who had cheated on them.
As expected, many participants reported that being cheated on had been experienced as highly distressing and traumatic. Not only did most report having felt betrayed and traumatized as a result of being cheated on, but about half also scored above the cutoff for probable PTSD. The average score of 45 was similarly above the cutoff of 33, indicating likely PTSD.
Measures included posttraumatic growth and depreciation inventory, core beliefs inventory, assimilated beliefs inventory, and perceived trauma severity.
What did the results show?
Data analysis indicated: Heightened perception of trauma severity predicted assimilation and accommodation of core assumptions.
And posttraumatic growth “occurred as an outcome of accommodated beliefs,” whereas “depreciation was largely an outcome of assimilated beliefs.” See Figure 1.
So, O’Connor et al. concluded that to predict relevant outcomes, we need to know both the traumatic event’s severity—as perceived by the victim—and the victim’s pre-trauma core beliefs.
Psychological trauma refers to psychological symptoms that can occur after direct or indirect exposure to violence, injury, or death. Potentially traumatizing events include natural disasters, fire, war, terror attacks, motor vehicle collisions, medical emergencies, sexual assault and rape, childhood abuse, school or work bullying, etc.
Psychological trauma can affect survivors’ fundamental beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world. Some common core beliefs are:
- I am a worthy and lovable person.
- People get what they deserve.
- Life is meaningful.
- Deep down, people are gentle, kind, and compassionate.
However, though less common, core beliefs can be negative too:
- I am weak and vulnerable.
- The world is dangerous and unpredictable.
- Life is unfair.
To determine whether trauma may catalyze psychological growth, research shows, we need to know if the trauma violated positive core beliefs, such as “Life is meaningful” or “I am in control of my life.”
Violation of these assumptions necessitates their revision. When this process is successful, it can lead to posttraumatic growth.
But what if trauma only confirms negative deep-seated assumptions? For instance, getting robbed at gunpoint confirming the conviction that “the world is out to get me”? If so, the trauma is unlikely to serve as a catalyst for meaning-making and experiencing positive psychological transformation.
Facilitating posttraumatic growth is important because the alternative is remaining stuck in trauma and experiencing hypervigilance, social isolation, flashbacks, avoidance, cognitive impairment, negative mood symptoms (e.g., horror, powerlessness, shame, guilt, self-blame), and lower quality of life and well-being (e.g., anxiety, depression, eating disorders).
The good news is that cognitive behavioral treatments, such as trauma-focused interventions (TF-CBT) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT), can help people recover from trauma and PTSD.
CPT, in particular, explores the many ways trauma may have violated or confirmed a person’s core beliefs. And it helps patients to challenge and replace unhealthy beliefs with healthy ones.
For example, replacing, “All men/women are untrustworthy” with, “My partner, like some people, was unfaithful, but there are others out there who are faithful.” Reframing things in this way prevents black-and-white thinking so common in trauma survivors.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.