Can Trauma Have Psychological Benefits?
It is not easy to imagine a survivor of a mass shooting benefitting from such a terrifying rampage. It is uncomfortable to ponder whether or not a refugee fleeing war, on foot, might benefit from the trauma. But, what if? Do people directly benefit from events of emotional trauma? Associate Professor of Psychology Anthony Mancini and his colleagues dared to ask these questions, and they found that some victims do, in fact, experience direct psychological benefits after a traumatic event.
Mancini and his colleagues found that in the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, 15% of 368 female student survivors actually improved in their levels of anxiety and depression. Not only are the findings surprising, but to date, this is the only study to examine and establish the positive psychological effects of trauma directly.
Prior to the Virginia Tech tragedy, Mancini’s colleagues, Heather Littleton and Amie Grills, from East Carolina University and Boston University respectively, carried out a separate multi-university study on sexual victimization of women 18-years and older, and measures of the participants’ depressive and anxiety symptoms were established prior to the shooting. Approximately two and six months after the shooting, all VT participants with a valid email address were emailed an invitation to participate in an online survey related to risk and resilience following the shooting. Fifteen percent reported a substantial reduction of anxiety and depression. The group was later invited to complete a 12-month survey, and remarkably, the results showed that the improvements continued.
How can acute stress have such lasting, healing effects? It is known that under acute stress people feel more trusting of others and possess a greater willingness to share. Shared pain is also a “social glue,” bringing about feelings of closeness, forgiveness, and cooperation. What Mancini and his colleagues found is that the increased social connection following acute trauma also effects healing. Respondents reporting a decrease in depression and anxiety, also reported substantial increases in the belief that friends and family would provide support, and greater intimacy. The inverse held true – survivors with symptoms of post-traumatic stress reported no increase or slight decreases in their perception of support from others.
“I think the study showed that the effects of trauma are more complex than we often assume. It isn’t that traumas aren’t potentially damaging. They are. But they are not always damaging. Sometimes they are paradoxically beneficial.”
The work of Mancini and his colleagues contributes significantly to a growing body of literature advancing the idea that acutely traumatic events can result in positive psychological outcomes. Their findings add to a fuller understanding of the faceted dimensions of trauma.