Posttraumatic stress often is associated with a significant life trauma, such as childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, death, or other events that cause intense emotional distress. Individuals who develop PTSD as a result of such trauma may have symptoms of anxiety, sadness, fear, and low self-esteem that they carry for years and even decades after the event. Many individuals unconsciously perpetuate their symptoms by engaging in rumination. Spontaneous thoughts relating to the trauma can occur at any time and can serve to exacerbate symptoms associated with PTSD.
Existing research on PTSD shows that the way in which a person identifies with his or her trauma predicts the severity of their symptoms. People who see themselves as victims tend to have persistent negative outcomes, while those who see themselves as being “victorious” over such an adverse event may develop a stronger sense of self and realize post-traumatic growth (PTG). Understanding how an individual identifies his or her sense of self with the trauma, known as centrality, could help clinicians treating people with PTSD. To get a clearer picture of how centrality relates to PTSD and PTG, Jessica M. Groleau of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina recently assessed 187 college students who had experienced a traumatic life event in the previous two years.
Groleau examined levels of centrality, symptom severity, rumination, and the participants’ assumptive world view, how they viewed themselves and their environments and relationships in relation to the trauma. She found that centrality was indeed a contributor to PTSD, but contributed to PTG as well. Specifically, Groleau found that symptoms of PTG and PTSD acted in unique ways, which suggests that centrality can affect the development and maintenance of PTSD and PTG simultaneously. “The same cognitive disruption that can produce posttraumatic distress can set in motion the processes that can lead to the experience of growth,” Groleau said. The perceptions that individuals have of a specific event, as well the reciprocity between symptoms and centrality, were two contributing factors that were not examined in the current research. However, the results clearly show that centrality can be a double-edged sword.
Groleau, J. M., Calhoun, L. G., Cann, A., Tedeschi, R. G. (2012). The role of centrality of events in posttraumatic distress and posttraumatic growth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028809
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