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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Posttraumatic Growth, Purpose, and Trauma in Survivors of Sexual Assault

  • Author(s): Damiani, Taylor
  • Advisor(s): Sharkey, Jill
  • et al.

Most research on traumatic events such as sexual assault tends to focus solely on the negative consequences. However, overlooking potential positive outcomes post-trauma limits survivors’ healing processes and treatment outcomes. This study explored the association between trauma, posttraumatic growth, and sense of purpose in life in university student survivors of sexual assault. The following variables were measured: posttraumatic growth, trauma history (including high magnitude stressors, traumatic stressors, and persisting posttraumatic distress), and sense of purpose. Utilizing a primarily quantitative study with a qualitative component, survivors of sexual assault were asked to complete a survey and open-ended questions about their life experiences.

Exploratory analysis showed the spread of the distribution of the Purpose in Life subscale with this sample. Thematic Analysis revealed how survivors understand their purpose in life. Qualitative themes and sub-themes that emerged from the domain, Sense of Purpose in Life, included: I Have a Sense of Purpose, I Don’t Have a Sense of Purpose, I Don’t Know My Purpose, and Purpose is Constructed. Within I Have a Sense of Purpose, 2 secondary themes emerged: Self-oriented and Beyond the Self. Within Self, there were 8 sub-themes: Self-actualization, Education, Career, Health, Happiness, Financial, Interests, and Safety. Within Beyond the Self, 5 sub-themes emerged: Generally Improve the World at Large, Solve Societal Problem, Improve the Lives of Others, Spirituality and Relationships (sub-themes from Relationships were Family and Honoring Parents).

Thematic Analysis also revealed how survivors view purpose impacting their life and healing post-assault. Qualitative themes and sub-themes that emerged from the open-ended question included: Impacts of Sexual Assault (SA) (sub-themes: Mental Health, Sense of Self, Relational, Consequences, Positive Effects), Purpose Helps Me (sub-themes: Purpose Helped Me Cope, Purpose Helped Me Grow, Purpose Helped Me Take Action Outside Myself), Purpose Harms Me, Purpose Has No Impact, SA Increased My Purpose, SA Decreased my Purpose, SA Did Not Impact My Purpose.

Results from hierarchical multiple regression showed that, controlling for age and education, purpose in life and trauma history are significantly related to posttraumatic growth. These results suggest the usefulness of focusing on one’s sense of purpose when designing interventions for survivors of sexual assault. The results from this study can be used to inform future research on PTG and to inform mental health practitioners’ treatment in promoting better client outcomes for survivors.

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