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The 5 Ways Trauma Might Change You, Based On Your Personality

Photo by Diane Villadsen / Stocksy
November 11, 2018

When a particularly traumatic event happens, we change. Whether it's the death of a loved one, a sexual assault, experiences at war, family separation, or something else, these triggering events cause an unnatural level of stress and a mixture of other extreme emotions that can sometimes leave a lasting mark on us. Trauma can be at the heart of health issues, recurring relationship dysfunction, daily energy deficits, and broader mental health struggles people experience throughout their lives. At the same time, these distressing experiences can also be a springboard for positive transformation—what scientists refer to as "post-traumatic growth."

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is a concept that's been well-documented and researched over the course of the last two decades. It refers to when a person experiences significant personal growth after a particularly stressful life event that has caused them to psychologically and cognitively struggle. And according to one exploratory new study, there may actually be five different PTG "profiles" that people tend to fall into, based on their personalities.

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Researchers have found PTG occurs across five different domains:

  • Personal strength: when people experience a greater sense of self-reliance.
  • New possibilities: when people find a new path in life that wouldn't have been possible if the trauma hadn't occurred.
  • Relating to others: when people become closer to others and develop greater compassion as a result of the trauma.
  • Appreciation of life: when people value their day-to-day experiences way more after the trauma.
  • Spiritual and existential change: when people feel they better understand spiritual matters and develop a "greater sense of harmony with the world."

A person can experience growth in each of these five domains in varying degrees.

"It may be possible that PTG is experienced in qualitatively distinct ways," the authors of the new study write. "For example, those who highly experienced PTG in Personal Strength and New Possibilities would be qualitatively different from those who moderately experienced PTG in all five domains, even though both groups may display similar levels of overall PTG."

Published1 in the Personality and Individual Differences journal this month, the study polled about 900 college students about their experiences with trauma, any positive changes they experienced because of that traumatic event, and their general personality types. The researchers found that trauma survivors generally fell into one of five different PTG patterns of growth, and there were some associations between the patterns (or "profiles") and certain personality traits.

Below are the five different growth profiles. (Their names aren't particularly clever or catchy, but alas.)

1. Low Spiritual Change

These people grew moderately across all five PTG domains except spiritual change. That means that to at least some extent, they grew in personal strength, saw new possibilities open up, related more to others, and gained new appreciation for life—but none of it had much to do with spiritual matters.

Of the five profiles, Low Spiritual Change folks had the least clear associations with particular personality types.

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2. Low Growth

These were the people who hardly grew at all. Outside a slightly higher appreciation for life, they saw pretty low amounts of growth across all PTG domains and low overall growth.

This profile generally corresponded to lower levels of agreeableness. That means the types of people who experience generally low levels of PTG tended to be those who were less warm, kind, and sympathetic. (That probably makes sense on an intuitive level.)

3. Individualistic Growth

About a quarter of people fell into this profile. These were the people whose growth focused on themselves as individuals: After trauma, they grew primarily via an increase in personal strength and new possibilities in life.

Open-minded personalities—people who are open to new experiences, more curious, and more attentive to their emotions—were particularly associated with this PTG profile.

People who responded to trauma with Individualistic Growth also tended to have a rather low level of a personality trait called "emotionality," which refers to a range of high-sensitivity behaviors, including having a fear of danger, susceptibility to stress, empathy, and sentimental attachment to others. That means if you're someone who isn't particularly emotional, this may be one of the more likely ways you might grow after a stressful event.

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4. High Growth

About a third of people fell into this profile. These people saw extremely high "general" or overall growth—that is, high growth without considering the domains in which that growth occurred. Among them, spiritual change and appreciation for life were particularly elevated.

This profile type was associated with extroversion, meaning people who are particularly outgoing and social tended to grow in this pattern. This pattern was also associated with a person's openness and their emotionality. That means people more open to experiences and more prone to stress, empathy, and sentimentality were likely to experience these generally high levels of PTG.

5. Major Spiritual Change

The opposite of the first profile, people in this profile experienced extremely high spiritual growth as well as a bump in personal strength and the ability to relate to others.

People with high emotionality and, oddly, low openness were associated with this profile. That means people who are less open-minded and more prone to stress, empathy, and sentimentality might be more likely to grow via spiritual change.

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So what the heck does all that mean?

Although the researchers found these five profiles consistently emerged in two separately conducted versions of the study, they acknowledge a lot more research needs to be done to understand why these different personality types gravitate toward certain types of post-traumatic growth.

Perhaps the biggest take-away of this early, exploratory research is this: We all respond to trauma in vastly different ways, and our personalities can have a lot to do with those differences. Even those of us who think we may not have grown at all after a particularly harrowing experience can look through these different domains and profiles of growth and perhaps see a small glimmer of ourselves or our outlook represented. At the very least, this emerging area of research not only offers hope to survivors trying to pick up the pieces after experiencing something unspeakable—it's also proof that the way you respond to your experiences is completely and totally valid, no matter what.

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Kelly Gonsalves
Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.

You can stay in the loop about her latest programs, gatherings, and other projects through her newsletter: kellygonsalves.com/newsletter