The other face of HIV/AIDS trauma: posttraumatic growth
Extreme negative opinions about psychosocial consequences of living with HIV are widespread. However, firstly, advances in treatment significantly extended the lives of HIV-positive people. This changed the nature of the disease from a disease that is definitively fatal in the AIDS phase to a chronic medical problem that is controlled with medicines. Secondly, scientists increasingly often undertake research into the positive aspects of life of people with HIV, as well as look for psychological resources that can be conducive to the best adaptation to the disease and satisfactory psychosocial functioning. Scientific reports linking HIV infection with ultimately positive psychosocial changes in the infected cover a very wide and varied range of topics. At the same time, this area is still poorly known.
Therefore, can the diagnosis and coping with a potentially fatal somatic disease actually lead to positive consequences for the patients? This phenomenon is called posttraumatic growth (PTG). PTG consists in experiencing positive changes in relationships with other people, self-perception and philosophy of life as a result of trying to cope with the consequences of traumatic or highly stressful life events. After experiencing traumatic events people may begin to appreciate life in a particular way and see the world as well as spiritual matters differently.
Until now scientists have studied how often PTG occurs among people living with HIV, and have tried to associate this phenomenon with selected clinical variables. Research has shown that PTG is related to, among others, lower levels of depression and less frequent abuse of psychoactive substances, as well as lower perceived social stigmatisation. However, the conclusions of the studies have not always been unambiguous. For example, some scientists have shown an association of PTG with better immunological functioning of people living with HIV, while other researchers have not found such an association. Similar ambiguous results concern the relations between PTG and compliance with medical recommendations, or more generally the coexistence of HIV and PTG. Moreover, little research has focused on the extent to which posttraumatic growth (taking into account sociodemographic variables and the course of the infection itself) among HIV-positive individuals is determined by personality traits, strategies of coping with stress, and social support. Likewise, few studies answer the question of whether posttraumatic growth translates into life satisfaction and emotional well-being among people living with HIV.
Why do some people mainly experience the “dark side” of HIV infection, so they break down and suffer from depression and PTSD, whereas for others it becomes an opportunity for personal development? These questions were to be answered by our team’s research into PTG in a series of longitudinal studies.
Four factors have been identified here. The first of them, particularly important in the development of PTG among HIV-infected people, turned out to be social support, including above all actually received support. The second factor was positive affect. Patients who declared PTG had higher emotional well-being, and it was especially important to experience and nurture positive emotions every day. This made it easier to notice and receive social support, which in turn favoured PTG. The third factor was mental resilience, that is a personality trait that determines the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions and is related to the ability to recover lost resources or regenerate them despite the difficulties experienced. Finally, gender turned out to be the fourth factor. It was HIV-infected women who reported higher levels of PTG.
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