Written By Alexis Mitchell UNCC ’18
The incidence of trauma during emerging adulthood (aged 18-25; Arnett, 2005) is 84%-90% (Woo & Brown, 2013). The exploration of roles, identity, and world views are developmental characteristics of emerging adults. These characteristics may be beneficial to a certain degree, however, they may also compromise an individual’s capacity to process and cope with traumatic events (Arnett, 2005). Thus, trauma further challenges the validity of the emerging adult’s fluctuating framework of the world, thereby increasing susceptibility to psychopathology (Woo & Brown, 2013).
Candace Woo & Elissa Brown of St. John’s University sought to examine whether “meaning making” moderates the relation between trauma exposure and depression in emerging adults (2013).
Firstly, meaning making and searching for meaning are the mechanisms in which people perceive and organize new information or information that is different from their original framework of the world. Finding meaning after a traumatic event can be difficult and often leaves people thinking repetitive negative thoughts and unable to process the trauma to fit in with their life. A traumatic event can be processed in two ways: by re-framing the traumatic event to fit into existing frameworks or by reconstructing the existing framework to accommodate the disparate information obtained from the traumatic event. In which, accommodating existing frameworks to the new traumatic event is the recommended process for finding meaning in order to reduce risk of psychopathology. An example of this is adjusting one’s worldview to- “Sometimes bad things happen.”
In the current study, Woo & Brown collected data from 8, 794 college students; all were ages 18-25 (2005). Online questionnaires were sent out to measure: trauma exposure, whether they were searching for meaning and finding meaning, and depression. The scales that were used to measure these conditions were: The Traumatic Events Screening Inventory, Meaning in Life Questionnaire, and The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale.
Results suggest that finding meaning was associated with fewer symptoms of depression only when the participants were exposed to average or high frequencies of trauma. This pattern purports that searching for meaning and finding meaning are important mechanisms in the prediction of depression when faced with both daily stressors and traumatic events. Among nontrauma-exposed students, increased searching for meaning evidenced increased symptoms of depression, and finding meaning did not protect against this effect.
To conclude, this study highlights the notion that persistent and extensive searching for meaning in life suggests an individual’s inability to flexibly adjust their personal worldviews to existing circumstances that may occur. However, when emerging adults are chronically traumatized, a thorough search for meaning and finding of meaning appear to be necessary to resolve issues that come with having experienced traumatic events.
The current study offers insight into the ways in which emerging adults cope with traumatic experiences in relation to searching for and finding meaning. Future research should examine the course of meaning making and the role of meaning making in daily stressors, not just after traumatic events.
Arnett, J. J. (2007). Emerging Adulthood: What is It, and What is it Good For? Child Development Perspectives, 1(2), 68-73.
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Woo, R. S., & Brown, E. J. (2013). Role of Meaning in the Prediction of Depressive Symptoms among Trauma-Exposed and Nontrauma-Exposed Emerging Adults. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69 (12). 1269-1283