Normally, when people talk about trauma, it is framed through its negative impacts. This is especially true when the trauma comes from sexual assault, where Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is a very real concern for many people. However, a less talked about outcome of trauma is called post traumatic growth. So, how can someone experience post traumatic growth after sexual assault?
First, a definition. Post traumatic growth is the process of making positive changes after a traumatic event. This is usually done through someone’s engagement with a meaning making structure. Post traumatic growth is a tangible outcome, arising through a constantly changing process. Someone can be anywhere on a spectrum of growth after a traumatic event, meaning that there are different levels of improvements. There is no universally accepted definition of post traumatic growth. The general consensus is that it’s based on how well a survivor can cope after a trauma. This includes having a strong sense of self and others. Survivors often create meaning out of their traumas as well. Post traumatic growth is usually measured along 5 domains:
- relationships with others
- new possibilities
- personal strength
- spiritual change
- and appreciation for life.
In this article, we start by will exploring what trauma is. The, we will look at how it can be mediated by internal and external factors of resilience. Lastly, we examine the ways someone can experience post traumatic growth both generally and specific to sexual assault.
Trauma: What is it?
Trauma has taken on a colloquial life of its own. People talk about being traumatized about how bad a movie was or by how long a specific task took. Trauma in the context of someone’s mental health is very different. It is defined as something that happened or happens that affects someone’s long-term well-being and/or functioning. Defined more broadly, trauma is an event that overwhelms someone’s ability to cope with the event that happens. By every definition, sexual assault in any form can cause trauma to someone. However, different people have different responses to a traumatic event. Some people will rationalize it, like we have talked about before with unacknowledged sexual assaults. For others, traumatic events will cause sudden and long lasting changes in their behaviours. We have also talked more about commonly misunderstood reactions to sexual assault in another article.
Trauma isn’t an abnormal experience. Some sources say that the majority of men and women will experience some sort of trauma throughout their lives. Moreover, in Canada, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 11 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. However, rates of PTSD are much lower than that (approximately 8.6% for women and 4.1% for men). So, what causes some people to experience higher rates of debilitation from trauma? The short and simple answer is communities and individuals working together.
Trauma resistant communities
Many lists talking about resilience will focus on the individual’s sense of self. Do they attribute the negative event to something that they did or something impermanent that was out of their control? Are they critical of themselves or do they show themselves compassion? Do they get caught up in the whirlwind of emotions or can they ground themselves in the current moment? As a piece of education, the second part of all those questions are associated with individual resilience. However, people’s internal resilience and their experience of trauma vary. But, regardless of the person’s individual abilities, being negatively affected by trauma doesn’t mean that they have failed. On the contrary, it might mean the systems they are living in failed them.
Michael Ungar talks about the individual factors of resilience as well. These include things like persistence and adaptation. But one thing that he introduces into the equation is society’s role in creating resilience. A main tenet of his theory of resilience is that resilience only happens in the face of adversity, which makes sense on the face of things. Many parts of life require resilience in order to make it through them, even ones that are not traumatic.
However, Ungar also includes pieces in resilience that go beyond what is typically put on the individual. Things like someone’s relationships (familial, friendly, or otherwise) play a key role in resilience. So do things like social justice. This would mean that the person’s faith in the world around them, and its proven ability to protect them, plays a role in someone’s resilience. We can add this to something like access to basic resources, where it’s a lot harder to be ‘resilient’ when you’re lacking food, water, and/or shelter. Also, a sense of cohesion with your community plays a role in resilience too. This allows you to feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. In other words, you have meaningful connections to the world around you. So, there is often more than meets the eye when it comes to being resilient.
Post traumatic growth
We’ve explored what trauma and resilience are. Now, the main question of our article comes into focus: how can someone experience post traumatic growth after sexual assault? To start, we will look at post traumatic growth in general. Then, we will go deeper specifically into post traumatic growth after sexual assault.
Post traumatic growth in general
There are many factors that go into post traumatic growth. Much like resilience, there are individual and group factors at play.
For an individual, being able to manage the emotions that come up after a trauma is an important part of moving towards post traumatic growth. This process involves interrupting the cycle of automatic and usually negative thoughts that can come up after a trauma. This sort of thinking is usually called rumination. Controlling the rumination to make it a more constructive train of thought can be an important way of coping with the distress after a trauma.
Sometimes, a survivor of a trauma might have to change the way they see the world in order to accommodate the new life experience. This can be integrated into a new worldview that makes sense of the traumatic event. Ideally, the new narrative “recognizes the complexity of the world”. A key individual factor of post traumatic growth is examining one’s core beliefs. This can be distressing in the short term, and reinforces the need for positive coping.
The other side of the coin, so to speak, are the social factors that influence post traumatic growth. Writing, praying, and/or talking about the experience are important parts of this process. They can lead to the creation of positive social networks around the person who has experienced the trauma. Self disclosure can be influenced by the survivor’s connection to their culture in ways that affect their ability to develop post traumatic growth. This is similar to someone’s connection to their community discussed above under the social aspects of resilience.
One direct benefit of self disclosure is having social support and role models for change. These role models can be a huge source of wisdom and inspiration for survivors of trauma. This reinforces the value of talking with people who have gone through similar life experiences. Especially those who have experienced growth from their own trauma. More broadly, connecting to one’s culture or society at large can be a way to continue forming connections. This can help in creating a renewed sense of wisdom that can come along with post traumatic growth.
All in all, these new ideas form a worldview that is rich and complex. They recognize the survivor’s strengths and resources. Moreover, they also highlight the survivor’s possibilities for the future.
Post traumatic growth after sexual assault
Post traumatic growth after sexual assault is very similar to post traumatic growth in general, but with a few nuances. One thing to keep in mind is that post traumatic growth and PTSD are not mutually exclusive. This means someone can experience symptoms of PTSD and post traumatic growth concurrently. The hope for many in this situation is that they can recover from the acuity of the trauma and move further towards post traumatic growth. This can be done by using adequate professional, social, and intrapersonal supports,
For sexual assault survivors, one study found 2 strong internal predictors of post traumatic growth. These were a disruption of core beliefs and perceived control over recovery. A disrupted core belief is when someone questions their core assumptions about the world. These beliefs can be things like “I don’t deserve much attention or respect.” or “Nobody I desire would desire me if they really got to know me.” Perceived control over recovery focuses on someone’s belief that they have control over their own life after a sexual assault.
It may be helpful to show an example of this. One survivor noted that the experience “made me stronger in who I am because I knew it wasn’t my fault”. Notice that the survivor in this situation emphasizes the control over their recovery. They also don’t engage in self-blame for the sexual assault. Self-blame after sexual assault is something that can prevent post traumatic growth. It is important to note that sexual assault is never the survivor’s fault. Often it is rape myths and rape culture that contribute to a survivor’s self blame.
The same study found two other interpersonal predictors of post traumatic growth after sexual assault. These are religious coping and positive social coping. They put into perspective the value of having a supportive community behind a survivor. Religious coping is often associated with a way of making meaning out of the world. The survivor could find solace with a group of people who share and model similar positive core belief structures. Additionally, positive social coping involves both problem-solving and emotional regulation activities. In line with both of these is the role of disclosing the trauma. Survivors are more likely to experience post traumatic growth if they accepted the assault after the fact. A piece of that process can be speaking about it with their community. A further step that many survivors take is to engage in activism or political action after their trauma.
These are some big picture things that can help with moving towards post traumatic growth. But, it is important to keep in mind some of the other aspects of resilience that were talked about before. There are differences between resilience and post traumatic growth. Resilience is usually a shorter-term solution and post traumatic growth is a longer-term change. However, things like a survivor’s access to basic needs and cohesion with their community are important to factor into their capacity to have post traumatic growth. Not having these won’t necessarily stop someone from growing after trauma. But social factors like poverty and the intersections of societal oppressions can make it harder for a survivor to be ‘resilient’. Which makes it harder to move towards post traumatic growth.
Post traumatic growth is the experience of positive changes after a traumatic event. Survivors of sexual assault often will be traumatized by their experience. However, that trauma doesn’t mean that the person will be stuck forever. People can grow after trauma. Being able to connect to a survivor’s community while reframing their own internal ruminations are ways to help make this happen . And, through using the strategies for resilience from this article, the survivor in your life might see some hope at the end of their experience.