New findings suggest post-traumatic growth may often be illusory

GettyImages-502659354.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

After a trauma many people have the sense it has changed them for the better, such as granting them a new appreciation for life or improving their relationships. This has given rise to the appealing notion that there is such a thing as “post-traumatic growth”. However, the majority of investigations into this phenomenon have relied on asking people whether they believe they have changed; very few have assessed people prior to a trauma and then re-assessed them afterwards to see if positive changes have actually occurred.

A new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships is the first to apply this kind of “prospective design” in the context of relationship breakups in young adults, and – unfortunately for anyone who found comfort and inspiration in the principle of post-traumatic growth – the authors Meghan Owenz and Blaine Fowers say their findings are more consistent with the idea that such growth is mostly illusory, the result of a positive re-appraisal of the breakup and one’s current situation.

The researchers recruited 599 undergrads currently in a romantic relationship and assessed them twice on a range of measures: at the beginning, and near the end of the semester. During that time, 100 of them lived through their relationship breaking up, an experience that, typically for their age group, they found extremely distressing (in fact, on a formal scale they rated their feelings of distress on a par with those reported by survivors of natural disasters and cardiac surgery).

At the start of the semester, all the participants completed a version of the commonly used “post-traumatic growth inventory” that had been slightly reworked to refer to their feelings over the last couple of weeks – such as whether they had experienced a sense of closeness with others over that time or had an appreciation for each day.

Near the end of the semester, all the participants re-took this same revamped version of the growth inventory, thus providing a before and after measure of their general outlook and behaviour. Importantly, the 100 students who’d been through a breakup also took the classic version of the inventory, rating how much they felt they had changed for the better in the same domains (such as closeness to others and life appreciation, among others) but specifically as a result of their relationship trauma.

Comparing early- and late-semester scores on the revamped growth inventory, there was no evidence for positive change, and no evidence that the students who’d been through a break-up showed any more improvement than the students who had not. In contrast, the break-up students did report feeling that the trauma had changed them for the better. Moreover, this perception of growth was higher for students who previously described themselves as more optimistic and who found their breakup more distressing.

Owenz and Fowers believe these findings are consistent with the idea that the perception of growth after trauma is illusory, arising from a (positive) re-appraisal of the situation. Colloquially we might invoke Freud and call this a defence mechanism – looking on the bright side as a way to cope (something that the more optimistic students, and more distressed students, were more inclined to do). More generally, the researchers acknowledge that actual positive growth may be a reality for some people, but they think it unlikely for most.

Future research might paint a different picture. The current findings pertain to young people in a specific culture going through a specific kind of trauma, and they were tested over a relatively short time frame. For now, though, these authors and others believe the burden is on advocates of the existence of post-traumatic growth to provide more robust evidence for their claims, especially using study designs that do not rely purely on people’s subjective and retrospective reports of change. The current situation – where post-traumatic growth is considered a reality based on limited research – Owenz and Fowers find  “…particularly worrisome, given the rapid move from research ‘documenting’ post-traumatic growth to interventions and self-help books designed to promote an approach to trauma that remains questionable.”

Perceived post-traumatic growth may not reflect actual positive change: A short-term prospective study of relationship dissolution

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

6 thoughts on “New findings suggest post-traumatic growth may often be illusory”

  1. Post-traumatic growth takes much longer than the length of a semester. Also, people’s assessment ratings are highly relative.
    If someone has never seen a large lake (or the ocean), they might rate a relatively small lake as big and if someone has never seen a rose, they might rate a normal daisy as being very beautiful.
    Similarly, someone who rates their emotions during time-1 of an experiment is only considering other emotions that they have experienced up to that time of their lives in order to rate their present state. When this happens, the researches would not observe a change in the ratings – this is probably why asking people whether they have changed as a result of a particular situation might be the better way to assess this phenomena.

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    1. I agree. Additionally, I would also like to know what these assessment criteria were. I would see break-up being useful for growth mainly in the context of relationships. It does make sense though, one must be at least that much smarter that they wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes again. Another sort of trauma might cause growth in some other aspect of personality.

      I’m not at all convinced by this study. People aren’t stupid, they would see how there would be a gap between what they report in one test compared to the other. There must be some aspect of the situation they were not asked about. I would be more convinced if there was first a qualitative study to learn what sort of growth and for what reasons is reported and then focus the quantitative questions on that.

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  2. The general understanding that suffering and distress can be possible sources of positive change is thousands of years old. For example, some of the early ideas and writings of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and early Christians, as well as some of the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam contain elements of the potentially transformative power of suffering.

    When talking about Post Traumatic Growth it is useful to understand that literature does not refer to resilience, hardiness, optimism, sense of coherence or positive ways of coping. All these concepts describe certain attributes that allow people to manage hardship well. In contrast, posttraumatic growth refers to a change in people that goes beyond an ability to cope with and withstand highly distressing circumstances (with the emphasis being on highly). Posttraumatic growth, has a quality of evolving and results usually in a qualitative change in functioning, unlike the apparently similar concepts of resilience, sense of coherence, optimism, and hardiness which they aim to safeguard the sense of self in face of adversity, it aims to transform the sense of self and often better it.

    People with good levels of coping capacity against common stressors, as I imagine people going through university would be, they will report relatively little growth in the aftermath of such trauma as a breakup. That is because these people have coping capacities that will allow them to be less challenged by trauma , and the struggle with the trauma is what is crucial for posttraumatic growth.

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  3. A relationship break-up, whilst distressing, is not the sort of trauma usually referred to in the trauma literature. For example, to be given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder the triggering event would need to be a major trauma such as “… exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violation”. It is important to make this sort of distinction between “big-t Trauma” (actual or threatened death, etc.) and “small-t trauma” (other distressing life events, like relationship break-up). My personal hypothesis is that post-traumatic growth is associated with the sense of having survived something that truly threatened to destroy you psychologically and come out the other side, leaving you with a qualitatively different perspective on life.

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