Every physical assault is harrowing, but the aftermath can differ dramatically depending on the person and the circumstances. In a new study backed by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that a few key factors can determine women's ability to resist post-traumatic stress disorder—factors that could prove invaluable to mental health professionals in treating survivors.
The study looked at 159 women aged 18 to 58 who had survived or witnessed at least one traumatic physical or sexual assault or a transportation incident. Among these women, 30 percent developed depression afterward, and 21 percent developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); some developed both. Thirty-five percent weren't diagnosed with any psychological disorder.
What trends did researchers see in the more resilient women? Above all, they observed "mastery"—the development of a sense of self-efficacy and the feeling that one can exert some control over his or her life—as well as a strong social support network. Interestingly, many women who bounced back after trauma had also recovered from a previous psychiatric disorder.
How can our culture better help survivors? Heather Rusch, NIH clinical research associate and author of the study, told Fusion that when women disclose their experience with assault, they are often blamed for it, which perpetuates the cycle of trauma. "This can confirm maladaptive perceptions of self-blame, encourage social withdrawal, and promote cognitive avoidance of trauma-related memories." she said. "It is critical to make efforts to reduce stigmatization in the community and help assault-exposed women to identify supportive social networks."