Date of Award

2009

Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Department

Psychology

Sub-Department

Clinical-Community Psychology

First Advisor

Suzanne Swan

Abstract

Research on trauma has, appropriately, given predominant attention to the negative sequelae of trauma. But there is another story to tell. For some people, distressing events become a turning point in life, a chance to change and grow. This phenomenon is known by many names, including cognitive transformation and posttraumatic growth (PTG), and has been documented in survivors of events as diverse as bereavement, natural disaster, terrorism, and the holocaust. However, areas of growth differ with disaster type and little research with disaster survivors has focused on PTG, leaving the content of and contributors to PTG following disasters unclear. The present study employs interviews with a matched sample of 52 hurricane Katrina survivors, half of whom were present in New Orleans for the storm and half of whom were not, to address questions about disaster-related PTG. A qualitative, grounded theory analysis of semi-structured interviews was conducted with four goals: 1) to identify and describe themes of positive change reported by Katrina survivors; 2) to produce a "thick description" (an in depth, phenomenological understanding) of the disaster experience and resulting growth; 3) to compare and contrast emerging themes with themes identified in current PTG frameworks; and 4) to explore the importance of event proximity in encouraging PTG. Participants reported PTG in five main areas of life (existential, personal, relationship, new opportunities, and behavioral). Results suggested several PTG areas important to disaster survivors (which are absent from most PTG frameworks), including enhanced community closeness, a determination to take things "one day at a time," and a sense of gratitude for multiple elements of post-disaster life. Comparison of PTG between participants who were in the path of the storm versus those who evacuated before the storm suggests that these two groups experienced a similar prevalence of growth across PTG areas; however, only participants in the direct path of the storm reported gratitude for life itself and increased value placed on life. Finally, results suggest additional elements of event experience (e.g., proportion of the community affected by the event, the trajectory of the recovery) also influence PTG. Future research is needed to test the impact of these variables on post-disaster growth. Findings provide possible areas of focus for clinicians seeking to encourage growth in their clientele and may be used to inform the development of a PTG scale for disaster survivors.

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