Does Psychological Trauma Have a Silver Lining?

Posted on April 10th, 2015
Posted in Mental Health

Psychological trauma can be devastating and can affect a person’s life in many challenging ways. But how does trauma affect the children of people who survive a devastating experience and suffer psychological trauma as a result?

Two studies from Tel Aviv University in 2012 and 2013 suggest that psychological trauma may have a kind of silver lining by helping to protect the children of survivors from negative psychological outcomes when they experience trauma of their own.

Less PTSD in Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors

During the first study, researchers Dr. Sharon Dekel and Professor Zahava Solomon evaluated veterans of Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, some of whom were second-generation Holocaust survivors. The researchers looked for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the most common psychological response to serious trauma exposure.

Dekel and Solomon discovered that veterans whose parents were survivors of the Holocaust were less likely to suffer from PTSD than Yom Kippur War veterans who did not have parents that had been through the Holocaust. These results suggested that having parents who have survived severe trauma may provide a certain amount of protection for adults who are later forced to face serious trauma of their own.

In the 2013 follow-up study, Dekel and Solomon returned to veterans of the Yom Kippur War to explore whether second-generation Holocaust survivors also benefitted from more post-traumatic growth following traumatic experiences.

Post-Traumatic Growth After Trauma

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) refers to positive psychological changes that happen after someone has struggled with a traumatic event or other major life crisis. The term was created in the 1990s to describe a variety of positive results that some people report during the process of recovery following trauma.

These positive changes can include increased compassion and feelings of closeness and affection for other people. Some people report feeling stronger after surviving a traumatic experience and being more accepting of their own limitations. PTG can include an increased appreciation for life and the desire to make the most of every day.

Not everyone reports positive psychological changes after trauma, and the fact that some people do does not mean that people suffering negative reactions to trauma should just buck up and look on the bright side. Estimates of how many people do report PTG vary greatly—between 30 percent and 70 percent—but nearly every survivor of trauma experiences at least some negative psychological symptoms immediately after his or her experience. Furthermore, some people will never benefit from PTG unless they receive treatment for emotional trauma or PTSD.

Psychological Changes After Trauma

During the second study, Dekel and Solomon discovered that while second-generation Holocaust survivors were less likely to have PTSD following service in the Yom Kippur Way, they were also less likely to benefit from PTG. Negative psychological outcomes were less frequent among this population, but these veterans were also less likely to report positive psychological changes years after fighting in the 1973 war.

The researchers speculate that second-generation Holocaust survivors, because of their previous second-hand exposure to serious trauma, are not as susceptible to dramatic psychological changes following a traumatic experience of their own. This pre-exposure may help to protect them from many of the negative psychological reactions that can follow a traumatic event, but it may also make them less likely to eventually view their traumatic experience as a an event that inspires greater personal awareness, acceptance and gratitude.

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