Original Paper

Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 65-72

First online:

Making Meaning of Trauma: Trauma Exposure Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

  • Lisa DeMarni CromerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Tulsa Email author 
  • , Joshua M. SmythAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Syracuse University

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Although traumatic experiences are relatively common, there is wide variability in individuals’ responses to them. This study examined trauma exposure, meaning making efforts (indexed by post-traumatic cognitions), and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTS) in a non-clinical volunteer student sample (N = 631). We further examined the moderating role of gender, the importance of trauma type (interpersonal vs. non-interpersonal), and the impact of cumulative traumatic experiences. About 75% of the sample reported past trauma (n = 475). Women reported more interpersonal trauma than did men. For both genders, trauma exposure was associated with more PTS. A dose–response relationship was found between the extent of trauma exposure and negative post-traumatic cognitions. Importantly, post-traumatic cognitions predicted PTS controlling for amount of trauma exposure. It appears that it is not merely exposure to negative events that matters, but how we construe and make sense of these experiences. This study extends our understanding of gender differences, meaning-making, and responses to trauma exposure, and suggests avenues of clinical treatment.


Trauma PTSD Post-traumatic cognitions Meaning Gender