Trauma and Personal Growth: New Frontiers in Research

By Walker Karraa, MFA, MA, CD(DONA), Former PATTCh President

As we have seen throughout the series, the impact of traumatic childbirth can be devastating to mothers, and partners.   There are new ideas emerging about the impact of trauma. While the negative impact and effect cannot be dismissed nor denied, there is another consideration that the coping process after the trauma provides individuals an opportunity for significant personal growth (Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006; Linley & Joseph, 2004). The field of PTSD growth potential, stemming from positive psychology, offers a much needed perspective of the resiliency of the human spirit to not only survive trauma, but to somehow transform the adversity encountered by the event, into self-growth.

Resiliency is defined as “the ability to maintain a relatively stable, healthy level of psychological functioning in the face of highly adverse events” (Vazquez, Perez-Sales, & Hervas, 2008, p. 69).  In an interesting study of traumatic exposure to terrorist attacks, 502 people were assessed — 20 of whom had been directly exposed to the attacks and 43% knew someone directly affected.  31% of the participants perceived positive consequences, and 61% reported having experienced learning. 81% reported feeling closer to others (Vazquez, Hervas, et al., 2006). This is one example of a growing number of studies demonstrating that experiencing trauma may have positive and negative impact.

Other studies have shown some common themes emerging from inquiring as to how trauma influences growth. People tend to become more altruistic and philanthropic, donating money, starting new foundations, volunteering, etc. (Fischer, 1994; Foundation Center, 2002; Renz 2002a, 2002b). For some, trauma precipitates an increase in social sharing of emotions:

Talking to others is a common mechanism that is usually displayed when confronting traumatic events, and it may have a positive adaptive value. “Putting emotions into word” may have important social, cognitive, and emotional implications by improving one’s own emotional regulation and receiving instrumental information to cope with the effects of trauma. (Zech, Rime, & Nils, 2004 as cited in Joseph & Linley, p. 71)

Sharing experience of trauma can promote sense of community solidarity, and feelings of being part of a community. Current theories on resiliency (Frederickson, 2000) have also suggested that some positive emotions can encourage trauma survivors to increase their sense of self-growth, and build new resources (the broaden-and-build theory).

As we grow to increase our awareness of trauma, we are expanding our understanding of the full range of impact it has on individuals. I have had many traumas in my life, including a traumatic birth. It was horrible. It broke me into dozens of invisible pieces, as my friend and colleague Kimmelin Hull would say. I don’t ever wish that on anyone. Yet from that event, I became a birth doula, an advocate, a doctoral student, and devoted my life to helping women know that they are more than that which takes them down. I am not PTSD, I am not breast cancer; I am a part of an interconnected matrix of mothers trying to speak their truths. I have encountered countless women who had lived through trauma and became advocates, bloggers, doulas, therapists, childbirth educators.  This is a dynamic seen in all aspects of society, and throughout history some of our greatest leaders have had a life altering encounter with a traumatic event.

My hope in sharing this research is that we will all begin to look at the whole woman as emotionally, physically, spiritually, creatively and intellectually resilient, embodied, empowered, and empathic.  Our births deserve to be safe, our bodies cherished, and our resiliency celebrated.


Walker Karraa is a doctoral student at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. She is a birth doula, maternal mental health advocate, and researcher. She currently writes for the Lamaze research blog, Science and Sensibility. She presents at conferences, trainings, and organizational retreats pertaining to perinatal psychology, postpartum mood disorders, childbirth education, and labor support. Walker also is the President of PATTCh, a not-for-profit dedicated to the prevention and treatment of traumatic childbirth.