New study explores how resilience impacts posttraumatic growth in African American women

Mushonga, D. R., Rasheem, S., & Anderson, D. (2020). And Still I Rise: Resilience  Factors Contributing to Posttraumatic Growth in African American Women. Journal of Black Psychology, 0095798420979805.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Despite mental health professionals’ ongoing interests in studying the effects of trauma and resilience, there is still a limited amount of research that focuses on how this specifically affects African American women. 
  • This qualitative study explores the experiences of African American women who have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). It also investigates how resilience variables may contribute to posttraumatic growth. 
  • Six themes were identified: motherhood, spirituality, gratitude, selective attention, solitude, & prudence.
  • Contrary to salient narratives of IPV and of “the strong Black women”, the participants were neither victims nor were unaffected by their situations
    • Many of the African American women received support from shelters, group therapy, and from peers who were in similar situations.
    • While a majority of them were able to recover from their trauma, sharing their vulnerable experiences helped others feel empowered.  
  • It is important for researchers and clinicians to apply intersectionality to their work.
  • Clinicians need to become more conscious of the racial barriers in obtaining mental health services and should avoid appointing meaning to their Black clients’ experiences. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Understanding the impact of trauma and resilience has long been of interest to mental health professionals everywhere. However, what is missing in the literature is the unique standpoint of African American women who are often trapped in a traumatic cycle of poverty and intimate partner violence (IPV). Therefore, the purpose of this qualitative study was to understand the lived experiences of African American women surviving IPV and examine resilience factors that may contribute to the development of posttraumatic growth (PTG). Semistructured interviews were conducted with eight African American women survivors of IPV. Thematic analysis revealed six themes that were relative to the development of PTG: spirituality, motherhood, gratitude, prudence, solitude, and selective attention. The emergent themes in this study present the counter narrative of African American women who see both adaptive and maladaptive mechanisms as viable contributors of PTG. This study informs practitioners about various strategies used by economically disadvantaged African American women survivors that may contribute to PTG following traumatic experiences, such as IPV.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The present study sought to understand the lived experiences of low-income African American women surviving IPV, and to identify resilience factors that may contribute to PTG. The LEC revealed that participants in our study had been exposed to multiple traumas, including IPV. However, many women reported resilience by utilizing both internal and external resources following the IPV, which initiated a search for “meaning-making” in their lives. Our study revealed six themes of resilience: spirituality, motherhood, gratitude, prudence, solitude, and selective attention. These factors were viewed as essential mechanisms that aided these women in returning to pretrauma levels of functioning and not being debilitated by the IPV. Our findings parallel extant literature identifying spirituality (Brodsky, 1999; Howell et al., 2018; Shorter-Gooden, 2004; St. Vil et al., 2017; Todd & Worell, 2000), motherhood (Brodsky, 1999; Todd & Worell, 2000), and gratitude (downward social comparison; Brodsky, 1999; Todd & Worell, 2000) as correlates of resiliency in African American women. Participants reported that they prayed more often and felt more connected to God since experiencing IPV, which seems to suggest that their faith was instrumental in coping with the adversity. This finding is consistent with other research showing that African American women frequently rely on their spirituality as a coping mechanism (Brodsky, 1999; El-Khoury et al., 2004; Howell et al., 2018; Shorter-Gooden, 2004). Participants also reported motherhood as a key factor in coping with the trauma. They were more appreciative of their roles as mothers and reported that their children gave them a source of strength and purpose. Previous research finds parenting to contribute to resilience in African American women, stemming from their desire to protect their children and improve themselves to become better role models for their children (Brodsky, 1999; Todd & Worell, 2000). In addition, most participants reported an increased sense of gratitude, despite the trauma, which parallels other research finding gratitude to contribute to resilience in African American women (Brodsky, 1999; Todd & Worell, 2000). Their ability to be thankful seemed to prevent them from harboring on the things they did not have in their lives.

Our study also revealed three contradictory themes (prudence, solitude, and selective attention), referred to here as “the flip side of resilience.” Prudence (mistrust), solitude (isolation), and selective attention (suppression) are avoidant coping strategies, which are maladaptive, given their use in coping is to avoid the stressor at hand or any responses to the stressor (Littleton et al., 2007). However, these themes of resilience seemed to play a different role in the lives of these women in the midst and aftermath of IPV. For example, many women reported exercising increased prudence (mistrust) since the IPV and a need to keep their “guard up” around others. This finding seems to suggest that prudence may have motivated the women to tap into external sources of help (i.e., domestic violence shelter) due to them being repeatedly let down by family and friends. Mistrust has been referenced as a “self-preservation mechanism” that works to prevent individuals from being susceptible to future trauma (LaMotte et al., 2016); therefore, by not disclosing their thoughts and feelings to those around them, they may have possibly felt a sense of control over their situation. Although they did not have control over the IPV, they could choose who had access to their personal life experiences. As a result, the women may have felt empowered knowing they possessed information that was privileged to them. In addition, it is possible that these women may have recognized their own personal strength to advance only after realizing they could not depend on others.

To access this article, click here.