Measuring post-traumatic growth

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Academic research can be hard to understand. SANE's Plain English research series translates important research into everyday language, to connect you with the latest information from the psychological field.

After a trauma, we know that some people experience post-traumatic stress. This can include flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety and hyper-vigilance. What’s less known is that, after a trauma, many people experience post-traumatic growth (PTG) – they feel stronger, have better relationships and appreciate life more than before the trauma.

The more we know about people who experience PTG, the better we understand how and why they respond to trauma this way. This could lead to better support and new treatment pathways for people who experience trauma and post-traumatic stress.

Researchers recently looked into how we can better measure and improve our understanding of PTG, and the ways we support people who’ve experienced trauma.

Here's the research itself and our plain-English explanation.

The research paper

Post-traumatic growth as positive personality change: developing a measure to assess within-person variability

By Laura E. R. Blackie et. al. Published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

What the paper says

This research is about how we could do a better job of measuring post-traumatic growth.

The researchers note that we currently measure PTG by asking people how they are feeling now, and then asking them to remember how they were feeling before the trauma. Then they compare the two responses and decide themselves how much of this improvement is actually a result of the traumatic event.

It’s a lot to ask. This method requires people to accurately remember what their personality traits were before the trauma, and to judge their own post-traumatic growth since. It also assumes that the way you feel when you answer the questions is how you feel all the time. We all know that how we feel at any given time can change from moment to moment, situation to situation.

What the researchers did

The researchers proposed a new way of assessing PTG, involving a technique called experience sampling methodology (ESM).

ESM involves asking people to describe their current state, or their state in the minutes before they respond.

The researchers recruited two groups of people: one group had recently experienced a traumatic life event, the other hadn’t. All the participants were sent a link to a survey several times a day for nine days, asking them to report experiences they had had in the past 30 minutes including:

  • the quality of any social interactions
  • their responses to stressful situations
  • their mood
  • their feelings of spirituality or connectedness
  • their appreciation of life
  • their openness to new opportunities.

Measuring post-traumatic growth in the moment

As expected, the level of PTG reported by the participants varied a lot from moment to moment, situation to situation. Using ESM revealed a richer, more detailed view of the way people experience post-traumatic growth than had been shown by previous methods.

The results also showed that the growth described by people who’ve experienced trauma isn’t superficial or just positive talk – the ESM showed post-traumatic growth playing out in people’s real, everyday lives, adding support to the idea that PTG is real and measurable.

How can this research help?

This research is a first step towards a richer way of measuring post-traumatic growth. New measures like this could help people who’ve experienced a trauma to identify situations and experiences that help them grow, and others that are more triggering.

Likewise, learning more about the varying ways people experience post-traumatic growth could help researchers and clinicians to better understand PTG, and to design new treatments to help people who deserve and need the best support after trauma.

This SANE resource was created with support from The Vizard Foundation.

Related: Post-traumatic stress disorder, Traumatic events, Giving voice to mental illness & trauma, What is post-traumatic growth?

Content last reviewed: 17 December 2018

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