Psychosocial Factors Found to be Significant in Response to Trauma

A new study at Howard University, Washington, DC, has discovered that having a purpose in life may protect against the potential psychological effects of trauma and be helpful to recovery for those who do develop a trauma-related psychiatric condition. Principal investigator, Tanya N. Alim, MD, said the findings show a significant relationship between purpose in life prior to trauma and resilience. Analysis suggests a connection between a  the  development of a purpose in life and recovery from psychiatric disorder related to trauma or absence of development of a trauma-related mental health condition.

Study participants were 259 African-Americans who had experienced at least one major traumatic incident in their lives. The study was conducted in order to address the lack of evidence for effective treatment of trauma-related psychiatric disorders. Findings were published this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry online.

Study participants were interviewed and categorized into three sub-sections:

  • 47 individuals fell into the resilient sub-groups
  • 85 were identified as having recovered from a DSM-IV diagnosis
  • 127 people were diagnosed with a current condition

All study participants were recruited from Howard’s medical services. Investigators looked at trauma-related emotional intelligence and individual’s coping strategies, as well as purpose in life.

The resilient sub-group had experienced significantly less trauma in their lifetimes. Women predominated the current-diagnosis subgroup, as compared to the other sub-groups. A sense of control, as well as purpose in life, was also found to be significantly related to recovery when the recovered and current-diagnosis sub-groups were compared. More frequent participation in formal religious services was found in the resilient sub-group.

Trauma can result in several different psychiatric conditions, including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), various anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, and alcoholism. Study participants who reported a psychiatric disorder had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. PTSD was reported most frequently. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder. Just nine percent (9%) of the current-diagnosis group had received mental health treatment.

Decisions concerning implications of this study for prevention and treatment of trauma-related psychiatric conditions may be premature at this point. It’s hoped by the investigators that further research will further identify psychosocial factors that are most often linked to resilience and how to effectively integrate these into treatment and prevention efforts. The study’s results await further investigation into the role of discrimination and privilege in an individual’s life as it relates to trauma acquisition and recovery.

© Copyright 2008 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shelley


    November 29th, 2008 at 10:07 AM

    I guess it would all depend on whether or not you had this sense of purpose in life before the traumatic event actually occurred. It seems like it would be harder to develop this sense of purpose after and event like this because it takes so much away from you. If you had that firmly established in your life before the incident it may be easier to look forward and keep moving toward what may have always been a goal for you.

  • India


    November 29th, 2008 at 11:17 PM

    a purpose keeps one occupied and whatever wounds life afflicts on us we get over them by staying with our goals, aims or ambitions.

  • Grayson


    November 30th, 2008 at 7:26 AM

    Shouldn’t this study be relevant for all, no matter their race?

  • Starla


    December 2nd, 2008 at 3:50 AM

    I would assume this would be the case regardless of race as well, but for some families there may be other factors. Perhaps certain races have better inter family support than others? Perhaps other races have better access to care than other races? So I can see why this was focusing on African Americans exclusively and cannot necessarily be said that this is the case for everyone across the board. I want everyone to have a purpose in life- this definitely gives you something to live for. This is increased even more when you have a family who supports you and believes in you, which I think is something that may be lacking in many American families today. I hope that my own children have to never experience an event such as this but if they do I know that they have goals and ambition as well as a mother who is there anytime they need her to help them pick up the pieces.

  • Maci


    December 3rd, 2008 at 3:57 AM

    I just happen to think that this may simplify things a little. NO matter how strong one is when he or she experiences a traumatic event there is going to be a residual effect. Perhaps it will take a shorter time for them to heal but it will be there and I do not want that point to become minimized.

  • Jayden


    December 4th, 2008 at 4:24 PM

    You are right Maci. There have been many instances that I have witnessed where people will say things like she should just get over it, she has her whole life ahead of her, etc. These kinds of statements only make the victims of trauma feel marginalized and may in fact negate any previous goals they may have been working toward before whatever happened to them.

  • Mark


    December 5th, 2008 at 5:31 AM

    I once had goals and dreams but my PTSD has taken all of that away from me. I have been going through therapy for many years and it still makes me sad to realize how much this has taken awaay from me. I am in a good place in my life now but sometimes you still have to wonder what might have been without PTSD interfering.

  • Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    Dr. Arthur Becker-Weidman

    December 6th, 2008 at 5:59 PM

    Trauma is devistaing. Coming out the other side and building an new life is very difficult and when you accomplish that, you are able to move beyond the past and into a new future.


  • Alyssa


    December 8th, 2008 at 4:02 AM

    It is hard for us to understand how trauma victims feel unless we’ve been in their situations. I do think we need to help trauma victims as much as possible by either introducing therapy or just being there for them.

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