A Small Study on the Effects of a Single Traumatic Incident


Within this qualitative phenomenological research study, two participants were selected to be interviewed for 45 minutes each.  It was asked whether or not the experience of a traumatic accident and resulting injuries had affected their life in any way, and if it had, in what way?  The researcher extracted common themes and formulated Essential Descriptions from the raw data.  Although tentative, the major findings the data revealed included a moving away from egocentric orientation to one which was informed by one's relationship with environment and other people.  Basic values and world-views did not significantly shift as a result of the accidents.  However, participants lived their lives in increased alignment with these beliefs and values after experiencing the accident.  Both participants have coped successfully with physical impairments and trauma from these accidents suggesting this data may shed some light on basic attitudes, beliefs, and coping skills that are successful in such situations, such as humor, creativity, and pro-active decision making.  Findings draw attention to the type and nature of the injury itself and it's interplay with how the patients process it's emotional and psychic effects, but definitive conclusions are absent due to the limited size of this study.



         The topic of this study was self chosen.  I wanted to explore how people have responded to significant accidents and it's effects in their life.  Were there any specific shifts of their orientation to life, or values?  What lessons, if any, did they feel they had learned?  I opened the interview by asking each of the participants if the experience of their accident and resulting disability had affected their life in any way. 



    Two interviews, each lasting 45 minutes in length, were conducted with two participants who were chosen based on their having experienced one specific physical accident that has had a significant impact on their lives.  

    Participant #1 (P#1) is a friend from university, currently living in New York City, who was interviewed in person while traveling.  The participant is an articulate young man who happened to experience a traumatic, life threatening accident in which he was struck in the face by a shattered plate of glass 6 months prior to this interview.          

    Participant #2 (P#2) is a member of this researcher's family.  She was chosen for this project because of her ability to express herself verbally, and her experience 30 years previous to the interview of an accident which led to the immediate destruction of 98% of her hearing with which she has lived ever since.  A third participant had been interviewed prior to the interview of P#2, but was not selected for this research because of the nature of the case: it was felt that because there was no specific accident, and the subject suffered from a psychiatric disorder, as opposed to a physical disability, his case was too incongruous with the intentions of this research project.   

    Each interview, after being recorded and conducted one on one, in a private room, was transcribed by the interviewer himself.  The digital recording was first listened to three times in the case of P#1, and once in the case of P#2 before being transcribed, so as to get a feel for what was communicated.  After completing the transcription, Natural Meaning Units, or NMU's were outlined, and were then condensed into specific statements felt to highlight or clarify the meaning of the participants specific statements.  These statements were then condensed into themes for each interview, which will be called "Aspects" in this report.   Essential Descriptions were then written for each participant. The Aspects and the Essential Descriptions were sent to the respectful participants to be verified.  Each were verified the first time, the participants having felt their perceived meaning expressed in the interview was captured in the Aspects and the Essential Descriptions.  The Aspects were then cross analyzed to find Common Themes.   Once these were extracted, an Aggregate Essential Description (AED) was written to flesh out the themes common to both interviews.  In preparation for the AED and Results section of this report, this researcher, in a loose, intuitive manner, journaled and explored different avenues of interpretations and connections which were later cross examined with the NMU's and Aspects as part of the verification procedure.  

    In some instances, Aspects were extracted not on the basis of repetition, but rather the stress the participant placed on that particular statement, either by way of inflection, or simply stating how important it is for them.  



    I was aware before conducting this research that I was interested in finding out more about how accidents relate to our lives.  I have had two relatively serious accidents in my life, and have always been curious as to why they occurred and if there was a particular lesson to be learned from these experiences.  My inclination is to believe that there is a relationship between psyche and nature, and that through synchronistic events, we have the option of discovering more about ourselves.  This is my orientation, and it is with this lens that I have conducted this research.  



Common Themes

The following are themes found in both Participant #1 and Participant #2:

  1. Spiritual/belief orientation remained essentially the same after accident.  Participants lived their lives in increased alignment with these beliefs after experiencing the accident. 
  2. Shift of focus away from immediate fulfillment of ego desires occurs after accident.  
  3. Feelings of fear, anxiety, vulnerability immediately after accident, also due to concerns of practical affairs.
  4. Decides on pro-active approach to dealing with accident and injuries.
  5. Makes single, specific decision how to approach life.  
  6. Experience intuition to help cope with/understand the injury.
  7. Acknowledge/confront/accept the limitations of the injury/disability. 
  8. Has humorous attitude toward accident and injury.
  9. Recognizes positive outcome of accident.
  10. Strong feeling of gratitude and humility.
  11. Feels increased appreciation of others: family, friends.
  12. Feels increased connection to surrounding world/nature.
  13. Confronts discrepancy between what others see/think and how they see themselves.  
  14. Expresses passion.
  15. Acknowledges importance of creativity as a coping skill.  


Essential Descriptions

Participant #1

    The experience of a personal traumatic accident for P#1 is characterized by a reorientation of previously held values.  This can be summarized as a shifting of the center of his world-view away from the ego and being re-oriented around a "higher power", although his basic beliefs regarding a higher power remained essentially unchanged. This occurred as a result of emotionally and psychologically confronting the effects of his accident as his previous attitude and actions came into direct conflict with the resulting physical limitations and the unknown outcome of his potentially fatal situation.  

    The process of moving into this new world-view, or self-orientation, was initiated by the accident itself and continued to evolve according to the participant's attitude which can be summarized as reflective, questioning, and open.   The elements and evolution of this shifting orientation can be arranged as follows:  The participant acknowledges that he is, at the time of the interview, still being influenced by the accident.  He gains a critical attitude towards previous values and feelings which he saw asunrealistic (including his pre-morbid sense of security and self-empowerment).  He experiences feelings of fear, confusion, and anxiety triggered by the unknown outcome of his injury and future.  He recognizes that his previous values andworld-view did not hold up when confronted with the physical realities of the accident.  He begins philosophical reflection on issues concerning mortality, death, and the future, concluding that he has lived, as of yet, an unfulfilled life.  The participant is not only confronted with his own limitations as far as his capacity to heal himself, but also those of professionals in the field.  This period of helplessness, anxiety, and reflection prefigure a dialogue with, and eventually the surrendering to something greater than himself.  The culmination of this dialogue is a "deal" between the participant and the higher power in which the participant would modify his behavior and attitude in exchange for two years of life.  Reflecting on purpose in life, he draws two conclusions: 1) he is to give the world a meaningful creation - an art piece.  And 2) he is to orient himself to others, rather than his personal ego desires.  The result, so far, of this experience has been an increased awareness of the preciousness of each moment, a felt connection to the world around him, and a sense of urgency to live a fulfilling life.    

Participant #2

    The participant's experience of living with a severe hearing loss caused by a traumatic accident 30 years ago can be characterized by an overall acceptance of her disability and the fulfillment of herdecision to enjoy and make the most of her life.  The effects of this experiencecan be described as a heightening or clarifying of certain pre-existing qualities which were found to be beneficial for coping with her injury.  These qualities can be summarized as a positive, humorous attitude, and pro-active approach to life, and the ability to recognize and acknowledge the limitations inherent in the hearing loss.  The participant's self image is not that of a disabled person, but rather, as a person who through necessity utilizes tools and methods of communication that are equally, if not more effective than hearing.  

    The participant's general response to the resulting disability was one of decisiveness and pragmatism.  Her immediate response was one of shock, denial, and a strong concern for staying employed (daily survival), and she used ingenuity in service of these ends.  This approach shifted when she was confronted with the reality of living with the hearing loss at which point she felt she was faced with a specific decision regarding how she will approach living her life with the disability. In this critical moment, she chose to live as normal a life as she could, and find ways to do so in a rich and fulfilling way.  She experienced feelings of sadness and frustration associated with her limitations, yet maintained a positive and pro-active approach to her life.  Her passions which included seeing the performing arts in New York City were necessarily compromised.  Her solution was to focus on what she could do, what she could experience.  The participant expressed indirectly as well as directly the importance of having humor - the ability to laugh at oneself.  

    Other characteristics of this person's coping style was to find new ways of understanding the environment around her.  Using creativity and an open attitude, and her life-long passion of experiencing people, she developed ways of picking up voice and music vibrations, fine-tuning her use of intuition, and teaching herself to read lips.  Rather than feeling and acting limited by her disability, she feels the tools she has developed to understand and communicate with her environment allows her to pick up more nuances than people without a hearing loss:  "so many times what people are saying isn't really what they are saying" (p.10).  

    The participant is adamant that the experience of living with a 98% hearing loss has had very little affect on her character or her approach to life.  What seems to emerge is the accentuation of pre-existing qualities which have enabled her to prosper.  Themes which run throughout the interview are humor, and a deep sense of appreciation for friends, family, and nature. 


Aggregate Essential Description

The following is both a description of the common factors the participants experienced as a result of the accidents and a discussion of the findings.

    Both participants were age 28 and living independently in New York City at the time of their accidents.  Both were prosperous in terms of life style and friends.  Both were focused on getting the most out of their life in New York by taking advantage of what the city has to offer.  For P#1, it was engaging in parties and art/music events in the city.  For P#2, it was attending performances of opera, ballet, and theatre.  Both were relatively happy and contented with their lives.  They initially experienced the accidents and the resulting injuries with shock, confusion, fear, and anxiety - from a combination of not knowing the outcome of the injury, and environmental stressors such as rent and work.  However, they both were soon able to acknowledge the limitations imposed upon them and through this confrontation, able to make a definitive decision that they would continue to engage in their life to the fullest extent of their abilities.  Each acknowledged that their personalities tend to be positive and pro-active and inclined find humor in life.  This attitude seems to have informed their approach to dealing with the injuries in similar ways.  

    An outgrowth of these experiences was being confronted with the question of their relationship to the outer world, in particular, their relationships with others.  Standard methods of communication were compromised and they were confronted with the question (in their own phrasing):  "who am I if another's perception of me is different from how I perceive myself?" Through this confrontation and questioning, each participant came to the conclusion (consciously for P#1, instinctually by P#2) that the integrity of their own internal experience is of the utmost importance, enabling, in turn an increased self-reliance and self-acceptance.  Because neither could now consistently rely onaffirmation from the external world, they were challenged to seek affirmation from within.  

    Part of this movement towards increased self-reliance and self-knowledge included deciding upon a way of engaging life that supported their values. Both shifted emphasis away from an ego-centric orientation to one that takes into greater consideration family, friends, and nature, expressing a deepening of gratitude, and humility.  Both participants values and world-view remained essentially unchanged after experiencing disabling injuries.  However, their active engagement with these views and values increased.  Personal creative activities were seen in both cases to be a means of engaging the world in a meaningful way.  These creative passions (painting for P#1, and cooking for P#2) were not fully claimed and experienced in a personal and consistent way prior to the accidents.  After the accidents, each began consistent creative work.  Included in this process is an increased awe and reverence and appreciation for what they cannot control, and for nature's processes:  P#1 explores watercolors in a way that allows nature and physics and accidents to direct the development of the image itself.  P#2 stated, "but I think the most important thing I've learned is you take away some things, and other things come into play that you didn't know you had."

    I have noticed and found it curious that both accidents affected a part of the person that appears to have been over relied upon in their daily life.  For example, P#1 states, "and I've realized that I've relied on my smile . . .  to let people know that I'm alright", "I've pissed some people offwith my smile, in a cocky smile type of way".  This illuminates two components of his pre-morbid state: 1) a reliance on others to feel good about himself, and 2) his smile was at times a reflection of an egocentric attitude.  The participant's post-morbid attitude addressed both these issues, creating an increased ability for internal self regulation, and embracing an approach to life that decreases egocentricity.  P#2's passion for watching the performing arts, possibly a projection of her own unclaimed creativity, is in part transferred into herself.  As a result of her loss of hearing, part of the energy that was invested in watching performances was reclaimed for herself, and expressed in her newfound interest in cooking, caring for her family, and catering (working with Martha Stewart).  



    I believe this small study is instrumental in that it clarifies some points that may be further developed an refined in future studies.  I was surprised to find the metaphoric preciseness of the injuries themselves.  P#1's injury impaired his ability to smile which he often used as a crutch - something I remember as far back as university 10 years ago.  He said himself, "why couldn't it have severed my frown muscle?"  That question underlined the importance of what had been severed.  He was left with half a smile, in much the same way P#2 was left with half her performances after her hearing loss.  She stressed, "Theatre was difficult, I really can't go to theatre anymore.  But I've got opera and ballet."  It is interesting to note the level of impairment as well.  Both participants experienced injuries that significantly altered the way they live their life, and created a very challenging but not impossible opportunity for learning and employing what they have learned in their lives.  I would be interested to see if further research in this area substantiates the observation of physical injury communicating in symbolic form the dynamics and complexes of the psyche.  

    In developing this research paper, I was struck how the conclusions the participants came to were so similar to my own values and concerns.  It made me ask: Do we as researchers just write about ourselves?  In this case, the question is obscured by the fact that the researcher knew the participants personally before hand.  Perhaps we were in relationship because of similarities in values and attitudes and thinking processes.  Perhaps it was projection, or just coincidence.  Or any combination of the three.  Certainly the findings as articulated in the aggregate essential description were to a large extent theoretical - only hinted at by the raw data.  If other researchers had the opportunity to analyze the interviews, I believe they would come to some similar conclusions regarding the common themes of the basic attitudes and personality traits of the participants such as humor, positive thinking, and increased feelings of gratitude and humility and awareness of their connection to their environment.  That they turned to creative expression after the accident is clear in P#1, and more subtle in P#2.  However, some of my observations that the participants lived their lives in such a way that was more in alignment with their values could be argued given the sparse amount of data.  

    In many cases (it is hard to say to what extent) I was consciously and unconsciously informed by years of previous experience with these participants, so that the source of my findings cannot be isolated to the interviews themselves, and yet I cannot make available to the reader the other experiences and sources that have informed this report.  However, I have tried to limit intuited and "other sourced" findings to that which is syntonic with the data gathered from the interviews. Again, it must be stressed, that the primary purpose of this paper was not the findings themselves, but the process of learning how to conduct a qualitative interview research study.  

    Taking the findings for what they are, they may be of some value in clinical settings.  For one, the relationship of psyche/soma is highlighted, awareness of which can be of therapeutic value to psychiatric patients.  Also, as both participants seem to have managed to process successfully their encounter with traumatic physical injury, by extracting which qualities, traits, and attitudes helped foster this success, clinicians may find it useful to encourage such qualities in their own patients (as well as in themselves).  

    Further studies may include comparing participants who are successful in coping with those that are less successful.  Of particular interest for me would be a study with a larger participant base to find if there are indeed correlations between the type of physical injury and psychic makeup of the participant.  Such psychological studies may mirror findings in studies in the physical sciences such as quantum mechanics.  Also, to explore in further detail the relationship between creativity and healing, or, creativity and meaning would be of interest to those involved in art therapy.   In future studies, I would be attentive to differing variables and try to keep as many variables consistent, such as age of participant, sex, length of time lapsed since injury occurred, and severity of the traumatic incident.