Study offers hope, sheds light on how vets respond to trauma

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—Veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also experience “post-traumatic growth” — such as an increased appreciation of life, awareness of new possibilities and enhanced inner strength, research by RTI International and North Carolina State University psychologists finds.

“There’s been a lot of attention paid to PTSD in our military population, but very little research on post-traumatic growth,” said Sarah Desmarais, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of the study. “But these findings are important, because they show that the way veterans respond to trauma is not a zero-sum game.”

According to the National Center for PTSD, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD in a given year.

“Some Department of Defense (DoD) training implies that people are either resilient or they’re not, but we found that people can struggle with PTSD and experience emotional growth due to traumatic events,” said Jessica Morgan, Ph.D., researcher at RTI and principal investigator on the study. “In addition, growth can occur very quickly, or it can be a process that unfolds over years. In other words, while recovering from trauma can be a painful and difficult ordeal, veterans and their families can have hope.”

For this study, researchers conducted a survey of 197 veterans from all branches of the military. Approximately half of the study participants served in the Army, 72 percent were active duty, and 69.4 percent were male. Study participants reported on a traumatic event that had occurred within the previous three years and were asked a series of questions designed to measure post-traumatic growth.

The researchers found that study participants fell into four groups with respect to the amount of post-traumatic growth and time since the event.

The group that experienced the greatest post-traumatic growth was made up of participants who were the most likely to report that their trauma fundamentally challenged the way they viewed the world. They also spent the most time thinking about their traumatic event and had the highest rate of PTSD.

Those who experienced moderate growth very quickly had similar characteristics, placing second in all three categories: the extent to which the trauma challenged their worldview, the amount of time spent thinking about the trauma and the rate of PTSD.

At the other end of the spectrum, those who experienced limited post-traumatic growth ranked last in all three categories.

"Essentially, taking time to think about a traumatic experience and make meaning from it can be very helpful for military veterans and ultimately, increase their overall well-being," Morgan said.

 

“These findings also demonstrate that we need to do more research into post-traumatic growth, working with the veteran community,” Desmarais said. “The fact that we still know so little about post-traumatic growth, and that much of the existing work was not done with members of the military, is a significant oversight.”

The paper, “Associations between Time since Event and Posttraumatic Growth Among Military Veterans,” is published in the journal Military Psychology.

A male soldier talks to a female counselor

Highlights

  • Veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also experience “post-traumatic growth” — such as an increased appreciation of life, awareness of new possibilities and enhanced inner strength
  • Researchers from RTI and NC State University conducted a survey of 197 veterans from all branches of the military
  • The researchers found that study participants fell into four groups with respect to the amount of post-traumatic growth and time since the event