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Turning Pain into Meaning: Is There an Upside to Trauma?

Events are traumatic when they are highly stressful, frightening, or distressing. Such experiences can inflict deep psychological wounds, damaging our mental health and reducing our overall sense of wellbeing.

That being said, could there be a silver lining to trauma?

To even pose the question can seem insensitive to those who have suffered, or are suffering, acutely. Still, while the costs of trauma are well-documented, less consideration has been given to the counterintuitive possibility that trauma might contribute positively to our wellbeing in particular ways. And given that nearly all of us will experience traumatic events over the course of our lives, this is surely a possibility worth exploring — particularly if there’s a chance we can help realize any potential upsides through our reactions to trauma.

Before considering whether traumatic events can make any positive contributions to our wellbeing, we should take a moment to consider what we mean by “wellbeing”. While no universally agreed definition exists, most theorists agree that wellbeing is multidimensional; in other words, that it is made up of different parts, encapsulating much more than just feeling good.

One influential conception of wellbeing is offered by Martin Seligman (2011), the main pioneer of Positive Psychology (the subdiscipline of psychology which studies the conditions of human flourishing). According to his PERMA model, our wellbeing is built from the following five components:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Towards which component of wellbeing might traumatic experiences contribute something positive? According to research by Sean Murphy and Brock Bastian (2020) at the University of Melbourne, the answer could well be meaning; the foundation of wellbeing enhanced when our life and experience is felt to serve some higher purpose. In a series of online studies, they sought to test the hypothesis that whether an event is felt to be meaningful is not a matter of it being positive or negative, but the extremity of emotion it evokes.

Though this question had not been directly investigated before, there are good grounds for suspecting that, for meaning, extremity of emotion matters more than valence (i.e. whether emotions are positive or negative).

It is easy to see why events that produce extremely positive emotions could give a sense of meaning. Moments of profound awe, connection to others, and great inspiration represent peak experiences that help shape our life narratives. Times of great distress, grief and fear are less obviously suffused with meaning. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that people might ultimately construe even extremely negative experiences as meaningful.

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Traumatic events can challenge our understanding of the world in profound ways (Park, 2010). They may, for instance, cause us to revaluate a belief that life is fair, or that everything happens for a reason. This can bring about major transitions in our outlook that, once gained, we would not wish to lose. Perhaps for this reason, we often see traumatic events as influential to our personal development; as times when we may have discovered a new side to our self, such as a depth of resilience we never thought we had, or expanded our understanding of the world around us.

There are also characteristics shared by extremely positive and extremely negative events which give the potential for meaning. For example, where events create intense emotions, we tend to accord them significance, whether positive or negative (Fredrickson, 2000). Significant events are those parts of our life stories that stand out, naturally imbuing them with a sense of meaning.

Extremely positive and negative events also share a tendency to bring people together. Where traumatic events are concerned, this can either be because our trauma is shared with others, or because others rally to our aid in our hour of need. Great bonds of camaraderie can be forged in the furnace of traumatic experience.

Finally, research shows that all extreme emotions tend to induce contemplation (Rimé, Philippot, Boca, & Mesquita, 1992).  Often this means contemplating how an emotive event, and the circumstances surrounding it, connect with our deeply held values. This can increase the significance of the event to our life narratives.

To test the hypothesis that emotional extremity, rather than valence, is what leads us to see events as meaningful, Murphy and Bastian (2020) asked a sample of Americans to think of two events in their own lives occurring within the past year: one which produced extremely positive emotions, and one which produced extremely negative emotions.

They also asked their participants to rank:

  • How meaningful they felt each event to be.
  • The intensity of the positive or negative emotions they felt in response to each event.
  • To what extent these experiences had increased their connection to others.
  • How much they had since contemplated these positive and negative events, respectively.

When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found that, as expected, events evoking extreme emotion were more likely to be considered meaningful. Crucially, it made no difference whether these extreme emotions were positive or negative.

They further found that this relationship between emotional extremity and meaning depended on:

  1. The intensity of emotions felt, with greater meaning attributed to events that produced very intense emotions.
  2. The degree of contemplation sparked by an event, with more contemplation associated with a greater sense of meaning.

It is important to say that because these findings are correlational, we cannot say for sure that extreme emotions caused the sense of meaning participants reported, even if there are good reasons to think this likely. It could be that people more prone to extracting meaning from experience in general are also more susceptible to feeling extreme emotions. Nevertheless, the findings do point to the possibility that traumatic events offer something of potential value in addition to the pain they cause.

The fact that study participants found their emotive experiences to be more meaningful the more contemplation they had given them suggests we have some agency in obtaining meaning from our trauma. By reflecting on what lessons a traumatic event could teach us, or its importance to the story of how we came to be who we are, we may be able to reframe the event as something meaningful, without having to deny the pain it caused or is causing.

Traumatic experiences are not something any of us desire, but they are something few of us will be able to completely avoid during our lives. It is reassuring to think that we could, in time, distill meaning from our hardship, shift our focus from what was lost to what was gained, and reclaim something affirmative to our wellbeing in the process.

 

References

Fredrickson, B. L. (2000). Extracting meaning from past affective experiences: The importance of peaks, ends, and specific emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 577–606.

Murphy, S. C., & Bastian, B. (2020). Emotionally extreme life experiences are more meaningful. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(4), 531-542.

Park, C. L. (2010). Making sense of the meaning literature: An integrative review of meaning making and its effects on adjustment to stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 257–301.

Rimé, B., Philippot, P., Boca, S., & Mesquita, B. (1992). Long-lasting cognitive and social consequences of emotion: Social sharing and rumination. European Review of Social Psychology, 3(1), 225–258.

Turning Pain into Meaning: Is There an Upside to Trauma?


Joshua Bromley, PhD

APA Reference
Bromley, J. (2020). Turning Pain into Meaning: Is There an Upside to Trauma?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/turning-pain-into-meaning-is-there-an-upside-to-trauma/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Aug 2020 (Originally: 10 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Aug 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.